Witiko Falls: Disillusion

Chapter 4

Moth_2.jpeg


Brook: Skin Deep


Brook: Brook barely gives a care about the conversation; he’s more worried now than gossipy. Dan’s even saved by the bell, right as they get to the next class. “I don’t have detention until tomorrow. So Dan, you better be free after school to talk, cause if you’re not I’m hunting you down anyway.” Another class and another spot to struggle not to pass out.

GM: Daniel tries to struggle out of his stronger, bigger friend’s grip, but he doesn’t refuse the ‘request’ to chat. “Yeah, man, okay, of course.” As the two guys head off to a class together, June, still a freshman, says farewell.

“Seriously, man, not cool bringing up teen pregnancy. She’s already freaking out that second base is going to get her pregnant or give her AIDs.”

Daniel rolls his eyes and sticks out his tongue, then slides into his seat—which their teacher has made sure is several rows in front of his friend’s. As the last of the students, Brook included, take their seats, their World History and Literature teacher takes roll call from behind her desk. Mrs. Jacqueline LeBaron has an age that is difficult for most teens to place. Definitely not young, but definitely not elderly either. Her plain mud-blonde, shoulder-length hair frames an equally plain face and tight eyes. She wears an ankle-length pleated skirt and a paisley blouse beneath a dark coarse-weave jacket.

Mrs_LeBaron.png

After completing roll call, Mrs. LeBaron stands up, walks in front of her desk, clasps her hands and says, “Students, please pull out a piece of paper and writing implement.” Groans of “pop quiz” and murmured curses ripple through the class. Mrs. LeBaron continues, oblivious or impervious to her students’ murmurs.

“We have just completed the Epic of Gilgamesh and our study of ancient Mesopotamia. Before we move on to new lands, times, and the literature they left behind, let’s pause for a moment to reflect upon what we have learned.”

Another wave of subdued grumbling passes through the class.

“Reflection 1: The gods created Enkiddu after the people of Uruk cried out for relief. What was the source of the people’s distress, and how did King Gilgamesh thwart the gods?” Mrs. LeBaron walks to the side of the room and pulls up the extended projector screen, revealing the above question written out in impeccable cursive. Two more “reflections” are listed, which she now reads aloud.

“Reflection 2: Why did Gilgamesh reject Ishtar’s advances, and what was the consequence?”

“Reflection 3: Spurred on by Enkiddu’s death, Gilgamesh’s undertakes his epic journey. In the end, the Antediluvian Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that, ‘Life, which you look for, you will never find. For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands.’ What did Utnapishtim mean, and how did Gilgamesh find peace with death?"

“You may begin,” Mrs. LeBaron says, then walks back to her desk and begins prepping the next portion of her class.

Brook: With heavy lids as soon as he sits down and exhales, he can feel his body starting to relax and shudder, asking for sleep. But this is a pop quiz, and surely there’d be a lot to talk about after he can jot down. He just has to make it through the class and maybe pick up a few things on Dildomesh, then they’re one step closer to lunch and a nap in the truck. Sure, there’s repeating history and reading is important, but it’s hard to memorize all those damned names, consistently getting them mixed in his head.

Question one. Fuuuuuuck, this one should be easy. I might have just… skimmed this part, shit.

Question two. Course you remember the parts where there was romantic tension, you dickhead.

Question three. Utnapishtim. Which one was—oh right he was… no. Fuuuuuuck it, I need to re-read this whole book.

It’s a nightmare, one out of three. He knows he has to study harder if he doesn’t want to repeat this grade, but Jesus could they pick something less pretentious and circular to read? Though there are always GEDs. Maybe then he would feel less like hanging himself. Finished as much as he can, he puts his name on the quiz and flips it face down, taking the book back out and flipping it open. If he wasn’t the sharpest tool, he’d just need to work harder, right? Pass out less. Ugh.

GM: Fifteen minutes later, Mrs. LeBaron collects the results of her class’ ‘reflections’. “Thank you, students, I hope that although you have passed in your papers that you will nonetheless continue to ponder the aforementioned questions throughout the day and beyond. After all, no man may step in the same river twice, but you can learn from previously crossers where it is typically safest and most perilous to traverse. Also, those whose marks are deemed ‘insufficient’ will have to repeat the exercise till their reflections are adequately matured.”

Upon her last remark, she eyes a few students meaningfully, Brook included. She then smiles and walks up to a wall to wall world map, overlaid with various ancient civilizations. Pharaonic Egypt, Imperial China, Persia, Mali, Mayans, Kievan Rus, and more. For the next half-hour, Mrs. LeBaron goes on a whirlwind overview of the world’s ancient history and the rise and fall of grand nations and civilizations. Perhaps the frenetic speed helps Brook remains awake. Or perhaps it’s her vivid descriptions of entire societies dying and destroying themselves or each other. The breakneck tour concludes with Mrs. LeBeron saying:

“And these are only a fraction of the civilizations whose bones litter the earth. Which is why–,” she adds, picking up and displaying a box of darts, “–the next major phase of our class will have us branch out from the Fertile Crescent, with each student being assigned to independently study a particular ancient nation or civilization. At the end of the semester, each of you will then present what you have learned in a term paper and in front of your peers. Each class session, we will alternate between studying a principal civilization and giving you independent time to research your assigned time and region. But rather than just me making the selections or having a dozen of you bicker over who gets to cover Japanese samurai and ninjas, we will throw darts. That is, each of you will have a chance to take a dart and throw it at the map. Where your dart hits will determine your nation.”

The class grumbles a bit at the mention of so much independent work, but many of them seem enthused or at least intrigued at the selection process.

“Can I go first?” a classmate asks.

“I believe we will go in alphabetical order,” the teacher replies. “And seeing as young Mr. Atwood is not here today, I believe that means… Mr. Barnes will go first.” She hefts a red tailed and blue tailed dart. “Please pick one, Brook, and throw.”

Brook: Brook meets the teacher’s gaze evenly as they go through the class, knowing he might have to take it over again. That’s fine, though. It’d give him a chance to reread a few sections of the required reading and try and wrap his head around this garbage. Hearing about the next assignment, though, he’s one of the people a little piqued! If he’s learning about something he enjoys, it’s quite a bit different.

Hearing he’s the first batter up, he steps to the plate and picks out the blue dart, turning to the board. Put a gun in his hands and he can smack a rabbit from 100 yards. This, though? Jeez, he’d never even held a dart. Good a time as any to learn though! Aiming for the area around Finland, Iceland, and Sweden, he carefully winds back and lets the dart loose.

GM: It doesn’t help that Brook’s only seen his mom shoot darts using a backhand throw. Behind him, several of the students cheer and jeer him on, shouting out various areas to either hit or avoid: “Aztecs ate hearts!” “Not Japan!” “Pyramids!”

But his inexperience, odd grip, and distractions curse his throw. The dart smacks against the map off-angle and hard, causing it to bounce back and fall point-first straight into the writing hand of Leanne Byers on the front row. She screams, immediately standing up and foolishly yanking the dart out, causing blood to spurt over her and another classmates. Chaos erupts. Mrs. LeBaron faints. Students burst from their seats, Leanne slips and tumbles. Gary Busing throws up. Daniel Littlebeaver laughs at the hilarity, flashing his friend a thumb’s up.

Brook: Brook tracks the dart with his eyes, and the red drains from his skin as he sees where it landed and what that girl did with the dart once it got in there, stirring it up and doing as much damage as possible! Seeing the entire classroom break down, there’s pretty much just one thing going through his head as he goes into autopilot.

Shit.

Brook runs and pulls the first aid kit off the wall and back to Leanne. He puts a hand on her stomach, telling her to lay on her back and breathe evenly, keeping her arm held up for him. He goes over what he’s supposed to. “I’m certified C level in first aid, I’m going to help you now!” Just like the law says you have to. Once she calms down enough, he wraps the hand up tight with gauze and kneels there beside her, holding her hand nice, tight, and elevated. No matter how much that’s going to get his hand soaked in her blood when it starts to flow though.

Leanne Byers… Brooks hasn’t talked to her much, though that was true for most of everyone but Dan these first few weeks of school. “Sorry about this, we’re just going to let it sweat for a sec. Does it hurt much? I can send for an icepack.”

GM: Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that Brook is or was the source of the present chaos, the students readily cooperate with the popular disk-jokey. Even Leanne Byers quickly cedes control of her body to the local celebrity. She does wince at Brook’s grip. “Of course it hurts–,” she answers, “–I had a dart through my hand!” Apart from her histrionic hyperbole, she seems hurt, but stable and comparatively calm–particularly because any embarrassment she feels is overshadowed by the literal and social mess Gary Busing created. While most students jeer and gag at Gary and his vomit or else cheer and gawk at Brook’s first aid heroics, at least one student goes to check on Mrs. LeBaron, poking her tentatively. For her troubles, that student shouts and flails back as Mrs. LeBaron violently awakes, screaming with clenched hands:

“I’LL KILL YOU ERVIL, YOU AND EVERY LAST ONE OF THEM!!!!”

All thoughts about Gary instantly evaporate. The class looks in shock at their normally mild-mannered World Lit & History teacher.

The initially frenzying, murderously screaming woman snaps out of it just as suddenly as she snapped into it. She blinks, her eyes refocusing and reorienting her to the present. She slowly stands up, looks over her dumbfounded students, and then, rushes out of the room.

“What the hell was that, man?” Daniel asks.

“Who’s Ervil?” several other students query—but to no immediate or definitive answer.

“What now?” another asks.

“Can I take my turn with the darts?” Barry Hobbs asks—to which a number of girls shout, “NO!”

“Someone get the janitor.”

“I’m going to the main office.”

“Brooks, shouldn’t you take Leanne to the nurse’s office?”

“No, stupid, you never move someone who’s injured.”

“No, stupid, that’s only if their neck or back is broken.”

Brook: Brook is glad that things kept rather civil while he did his magic, mostly just glad his little patient is doing okay despite being pissed with him. “Least you still have feeling,” he teases, giving her a little wink and watching the classroom chaos unfold. This is… well it’s definitely the most eventful day he’s had in World Literature so far. As people talk, Brook speaks up to get Dan’s attention across the room. “Danny! Find my dart and stick it into Iceland before the teacher gets up.”

Too bad he’s late on saying that, suddenly the teacher screams out a name like nothing she’s ever belted out before. It’s… yeah, it’s something. But despite all the people talking after, he hears a sound plan in there. “Come on, Leanne, let’s get you up and into the nurse’s office. Maybe they’ll let you take the rest of the day off. I’ll even drive you home, if need be.”

GM: “Oh, okay,” Leanne says with a half-hidden smile. Between them, amidst the smell of blood and vomit, they leave the class to its own Lord of the Flies reenactment. Out in the hallway, as the teens walk literally, if awkwardly, holding hands. Leanne turns and asks, “Brooks, what do you think… happened with Mrs. LeBaron? I mean, not the fainting, but well what happened… after.”

Leanne herself is tall, of the height and age for a girl who awkwardly hit puberty and a growth spurt well before most of her male and female peers. Brook himself just caught up to her in bruising six feet, so they make a relatively tall pair, particularly for underclassmen. A farm-girl if not quite tom-boy, Leanne has, much to the teasing delight of some of her peers, an equine cast to her long face, with wide-set blue-gray eyes and a prominent nose. Her chin-length ‘mane’ of blonde-white hair is beyond unruly. She wears a cotton-knit shirt without a bra, riding jeans, scuffed up tennis shoes, and a pleated, faded blue polyester vest that she’s seemingly never taken off in the four years he has known her. She wears no make-up or jewelry, save for an antique looking ring fashioned in the shape of a triskelion. To Brook, she smells like deep loam, fishing, cattle, and old campfires. And blood of course.

Leanne.jpg

As Leanne waits expectantly for Brook’s answer, the pair passes by Mrs. Sampson’s classroom. The door is ajar, but the classroom is dark with the lights out and the windows covered with black cloth. Inside, the social studies teacher leads a group of freshman in recitation that echoes down the hall:

“Dark Lilith, the Black Rose,
Goddess of Hell, full of darkness and lust,
Blessed art the fruit of your womb,
the demons of the pit, and Satan’s offspring,
And let thy demonic army reign over this dark world and hellfire reign upon us with darkness.
Omen.”

Meanwhile, a group of upperclassmen run through the hall in the opposite direction. “Go Kelpies!” they shout with the manic joy of adolescence.

Brook: Brook still sees it, giving her a little smile himself as he helps her up and into the hallway, loosening his grip a little as they walk out. It’s easy to forget how fragile some people might be, growing up how he did. Riddled with marks and scars from creature and caretaker alike. Though she seems curious about what happened, too. For someone so soft-spoken to scream out for blood, she sounded like a skinhead screaming ‘Jews’.

“That’s a good question. Sounds like someone really did her wrong. Never heard the name, I don’t think. Maybe a foreigner broke her heart?”

Walking alongside her, he does notice how tall the two of them are. It’s actually a cool feeling, not having to crane his head to look down at a girl for once. He bet it’d help a lot with makin–. Er. He corrects his thought and rolls his eyes internally. Every single girl he talks to for more than five minutes, that picture pops into his head. Though, she does smell… wonderful. It makes him feel guilty, especially with the directions some of his dreams go to twist that into something horrible. Speaking of twisted, Mrs. Sampson’s classroom sounds like the perfect class to never fall asleep in, lest he wake up with his testicles a sacrifice to her fertility demon. Yeesh.

“If you want, I can look into it and tell you what I find. I kind of owe you for… y’know, mucking up your hand. Sorry, by the way, I don’t think I uh—I got caught up in the moment and don’t think I apologized.”

GM: “Yeah, okay.” The girl’s thoughts are seemingly no less complicated, but they remain opaque to Brook—and maybe even to herself. Yet, when Leanne reaches up with her uninjured hand to caress Brook’s raven-black hair, some of her thoughts simmer to the surface, so naked and bare that Brook can almost touch them. “I’ve always wanted to…”

“…you had a spot of blood,” the girl discongruently finishes, her pale features blushing.

Brook: Brook flinches just a little when she suddenly raises her hand, a reflex, but as the girl smooths her hand along his hair he’s a little shocked. Looking down at her face, a thought comes bulldozing into his mind.

Does she like me? Seriously? Well—why?.

Heart throbbing up into his throat, he just stops and stands there flustered for a moment, clearing his throat and trying to speak. Holding hands suddenly becomes a lot more awkward, as well, but he finally gathers the courage to answer her. “Thanks, Leanne. I—thanks. We should get you to the nurse. For your hand. So it doesn’t get infected. We can, uh… we’ll catch up later. I can make it up to you.”

Charging at stags, ambushing feral hogs, gunning down coyotes, and even having put down a bear with his mother. All this, and Leanne manages to sap the boy’s courage a little. Of course he’d talked to girls before, had little girlfriends in middle school. But this feels a lot heavier. She’s nice so far, maybe he could get to know her a bit better. Hopefully without his mother finding out.

GM: Leanne just nods, her own thoughts seemingly too inscrutable or jumbled to articulate. On the way, the pair passes by a cluster of AV Club students rolling some electronic equipment down the hallway. The all-male group is mid-bickering. The subject of their contention seems to be the ‘proper’ term for someone sexually attracted to anthropomorphized objects or machines.

“Look, people into animal suits are called ‘furries’, so they should be, like, ‘shinies’ or ‘techies’.”

“That’s stupid, Ted,” another chimes in, “The term’s mechanophile.”

“Technosexual, I think describes it better,” a third adds.

A fourth flips through a book, then says, “Here it says that some robot fetishists go as ‘ASFRians’ for alt.sex.fetish.robots.”

The second kid peaks at the book, while the first asks, “Heh, have any of you seen Kurt?”

The group slips by, leaving Leanne and Brook alone again. “Weirdos,” the former mutters.

Brook: Brook still feels a little awkward about the situation, but he doesn’t let it stop him from keeping the pressure on her hand. Making it sweat just a little, he’s hoping that the blood will have stopped by now. Not that he’s scared of a little of it on him. Already they look like they made some sort of blood pact, walking down the hall like this.

As the group of AV clubbers going down the hall past them, talking about their perverted subject matter, he actually smiles a bit. It’s something stupid to pass the time, he guesses, but students here are just kind of… like that. Strange. He likes it. It makes taking guest calls at night fun at least. Hearing Leanne point it out though, gives him a bit of a chuckle. “They must be bored without that Kurt guy of theirs. If it’s the same one I heard about, I got a call about him last night, and he got horribly busted with a fake ID. Not too bright, that one.” Now that he mentions it… was she a fan of his show? What kind of music did she like?

GM: “You talking about Kurt, the senior who works at the movie theater? Wow. That was dumb trying to pass a fake ID at a bar. Everybody knows everybody here. Especially him, or at least his father,” she adds with a frown.

Brook: Brook nods a bit at Leanne’s words: it’s true. No one would let him into any kind of bar here, despite his looks. “Yeah. What makes it worse, it was apparently the Burning Bush. His poor parents. My mother would tie me up in the woods…”

GM: “The Bush? No shit…” she says, looking off and away. "Makes you wonder if the other rumors were true.”

“So what about you?" she asks rather abruptly, looking back at Brook, or at least his black locks.

Brook: “I dunno. I can’t sleep at night, so I’m a bit too sleepy during the day to really pick up on rumors. What are people saying about Kurt?”

Brook isn’t a drama queen, but he still likes hearing gossip in school. People like to mess with the red kids, and suspensions for beating the hell out of them isn’t an option anymore. He has a responsibility to be a better student than he was in middle school. Not being here meant not meeting girls, as well. Like the one looking up at his hair right now. Little strange.

GM: “No, I wasn’t talking about… I meant… never mind.”

Brook: Brook looks a bit confused down at her, feeling bad, for misunderstanding her. Talking to girls wasn’t usually a problem. “No, I—what did you mean? What about me, what?”

It takes a second, but things click in his head after a quick scan of her face and thought back. If this is the same Kurt, was she talking about dating? That’s…jeez. What about him? He has to not be so fucking obvious with this, not fuck it up!

“Oh, you mean the rumor about his uhm—his girl issues. Sounds a little scummy. Outside of middle school, I haven’t even had one girl yet. Been… busy! Yeah, with the station and the forest.” It doesn’t feel subtle at all, it feels like screaming ’I’m not taken’ into her damn ear.

GM: Leanne smiles a bit, then looks again at Brook’s hair. “It’s always reminded me of black licorice. I like black licorice,” she says, this time staring into Brook’s eyes.

“Can I help you two?” says Nurse Tyson. They are, after all, just outside her office now, their feet long on auto-pilot. Wearing a white medical smock and old-fashioned nurse’s hat, Rita Tyson looks a caricature that’s fifty years past its expiration date. With scrunched-down brown hair, hazel-green eyes with pronounced anisocoria, and glossy lopsided lips, the thirty-some old nurse is neither a vixen nor a hag, at least, so long as one overlooks her hands.

Few do. The Kelpies’ nurse has abnormally large, masculine hands. The disparity in size and shape is not immediately obvious, but once noticed, it’s simply impossible to ignore. It’s also the cause of her student-given sobriquet: Mrs. Man-Hands. Tyson begins to repeat her question when she spots the blood and gauze. “Come in, come in,” she says motioning to them. “Now what happened?”

Leanne follows, but glances at Brook. Maybe longingly. Her answer though is to Nurse Tyson. “It was an accident.”

Brook: Brook’s… hair? That’s what had her so attracted to him? One of the few things that Brook took away from Native culture was men with long hair. Much as the thick mop tangles and gets in the way, it seems it’s scored him some points. Even with a hair clip blended in on the top of his head holding it out of his face.

But the moment is ruined by the nurse as she comes out to see them; the young man clears his throat and just nods along with Leanne. “The class had us throwing darts. Mine bounced off the board and hit her hand. It tore an artery that should at least be closed soon.” The rest of the procedure falls clear into the nurse’s job description. Disinfect and rewrap. “She’s lost a bit of blood, though. I can get her home, if need be.”

GM: Nurse Tyson inspects Brook’s handiwork—which is to say the wound as well as his first aid.

In response to both, she says, “Well, Mr. Barnes, I would say Ms. Byers was lucky to have you around to patch up her wounds—but then, she only needed said patching because you were around. Still, I’m impressed with your first aid skills. You’d make a fair nurse or medic. Ever consider joining the Knights of the Taxiarch?”

Brook: Despite his age, Brook is a park ranger, or at least ranger cadet. Once he graduates, he hopes to assist with car wrecks, police aggressive action, and perform traffic stops if he runs into them. It’s why they have badges, vests, and weapons—and why Brook has put so much work into his first aid skills. “It was my fault, so I fixed it. As for the Knights, I’ll definitely pass. I’ve got other responsibilities.”

Finally, with his own hand back, it’s clear he’s messed himself up as well. The feeling of the plasma and protein in blood drying on his skin is familiar, and not that unpleasant either. Still, better to wash it quickly. This hand is rather important to him. “Can I wash my hands? I’m a bit bloody as well.”

GM: “Of course, Mr. Barnes,” the nurse says, as she gathers some additional cleaning supplies for Leanne. The latter winces, but tries to put up a stoic front. As Brook cleans off his hands, the school-wide intercom crackles into life:

“Brook Barnes, please report to the principal’s office immediately.”

Both Leanne and Nurse Tyson flash him a sympathetic look. “Best be going lad,” the latter says, “Like taking off a band-aid, lallygagging only makes it worst.”

Brook: Brook feels the water suddenly get a little colder as the announcement barks out its intentions for and at him. Fuck. It’s a slight inconvenience, but he isn’t all too scared. Nothing intentional was done wrong. “It’s fine. It could be the job calling. Sorry I couldn’t take you home, Leanne; I’ll talk to you later.” With that, he goes into the hall and makes his way into the office, not daring to dawdle. They’re right about not keeping the sister waiting.

GM: This time, the hallways seem quieter. Emptier. The disquieting feeling only amplifies once Brook enters the north wing. Save for the principal’s isolated sleeping quarters and office, the school’s north wing has been abandoned for more than three decades due to shrinking enrollments. No stranger to being alone, the junior park ranger nevertheless finds no solitude in the dark corridors. This is not the sun- or starlit wilds where life teems and man is a seldom tolerated foreigner. Instead, the neglected halls and desolate classrooms portray desolation: the profound haunting absence of human society where it should thrive.

north_hall.png

And yet, despite its abandonment and desolation, the north wing is far from quiet. Lights sometimes spring into false-life, buzzing or flickering before dying. Magnetic door-locks clunk, causing echoes to haunt the hallways and dark stairways. And then there’s the smell. Sometimes it resembles burning chicken feathers, saltwater, or a clothes’ iron left forgotten face-down. And the smell is almost always accompanied by the taste. Like old pennies in your mouth, or the flavor of licked batteries. No, the north wing is far from quiet. It is disquiet. The journey alone is enough to make most students break into cold sweats and panic attacks.

But for some, what waits at their destination is far worse.

Brook: One’s eyes can only give you so much information on where one is. Brook knows where he is, but it’s as if he’s walked out of the bathroom after a shower. Suddenly cold, with every pore of one’s body on edge, so they drag on clothes. The smell puts him off the most. Pennies, licked batteries. They make him think of blood, like old piss in carpet reminds him of off shellfish. But it’s not a wholly unfamiliar feeling.

Brook breaks into a stride, he’s scared, but he does what he always does. Head down, thousand yard stare, see through the corner of your eyes for movement. Details don’t matter. Ears track everything, and he keeps his nose open for shifts. This is why he doesn’t enjoy the company of their principal. Whatever she believes, using fear against people is never a good idea. It doesn’t make Brook feel subservient. It makes him feel angry. This is the kind of place that makes him wish school wasn’t a gun free zone, even for him.

Where is that nun’s damn cave?

GM: The ‘cave’ awaits Brook, its door already ajar.

The office of Sister Apollonia Gorczak, like its owner, is severe. Rough-sanded planks support a metal-framed cot covered in rough but precisely laid sackcloth. Beside it, a small bookcase stands in shadow. The plaster-cracked walls are less adorned and moreso impaled by religious iconography. Foremost among these is a large black cross set above a Latin inscription: DOMINE MISERERE SUPER ISTA PECCATRICE. As a freshman, Brook painfully learned its translation: LORD, HAVE MERCY ON THIS SINFUL ONE. However, the sophomore still remains ignorant of the meaning of the human skull bolted to a plaque.

Principal Gorczak is kneeling upon her habit, its scapular, dress, and veil a dark-grey the color of burnt bones, while her wimple is the shade of lightning. She reads from an open book, her fingers folded into her sleeves, her face obscured from her shroud-like veil. There are no chairs in Principal Gorczak’s office. One either stands or kneels. The nun’s voice, thin and sharp as a cane, cracks the silence.

Apollonia_Gorczak.jpg

“The Gospel of Didymos Judas Thomas, verse 10: ‘I have cast fire upon the world, and behold, I guard it until it burns’. Tell me, Brook Barnes, baptized son of Mary, what does this verse signify?”

Brook: Brook’s eyes always turn to the skull first when he enters the room. He knows there are special permits to keep human remains, it must have been important to the principal to keep that here. If the scripture on the walls is any indication, maybe she’s a nun because she took an ex-husband’s head or something.

But he would never verbalize it, standing at attention and quietly after he knocks thrice and enters, closing the door behind him. Much as he doesn’t wish the ire of the sister, he wants as many inches of plaster between the empty wing and his back as possible. Back to somewhere you don’t have to watch it.

“I… well, it makes me think of someone doing something bad, and covering it up so it can pay off for them. Like—maybe like mobsters protecting storefronts that pay them off? I don’t think I’m very good at religious interpretations, Principal Gorczak, sorry. Not a… church type, yet.”

GM: Principal Gorczak remains kneeling. She closes the Apocrypha with startling speed, a sharp echo ricocheting in the small room. The sound startles a lone moth to rise up from the nun’s sackcloth bed and begin fluttering in the room.

“Are you familiar with the butterfly effect?” the principal asks, her head still bowed and concealed by her dark veil.

Brook: Brook nearly jumps out of his skin when she slams it shut, hand instinctively slapping onto his chest. Where his gun would be, if he wasn’t in school. Moron. Shifting it up, he puts it over his chest, pretending just to be patting his heart calm.

“Is it—uhm. No, Principal Gorczak. Maybe something about migration? Like monarchs?”

GM: “Incorrect.”

“The scientific principle known as the butterfly effect was coined by the meteorologist Edward Lorenz. In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state. In other words, Brook, son of Mary, small causes can have large, often unforeseen effects.”

“The principle had long been known, but it was Lorenz that popularized its name after suggesting that the flapping wings of a butterfly in the Amazon can shape a tornado in Texas. Just like a careless throw of a dart can derail an entire class –and perhaps much more.”

“Which begs the question, Brook, son of Mary–,” the nun says, her hands suddenly bursting out of her sleeves to violently catch the moth mid-flight, “–if given the chance to stop the tornado, would it be wise, even righteous, to simply crush the butterfly?”

Brook: Brook listens. Might have even taken notes if he wasn’t standing without his bag, speckled in blood, in the abandoned wing of the school, and currently standing in front of the apparent lizard person who is his principal. Poor moth. Her question though, he ponders for a second, his mind slowly grinding in circles trying to think of an answer, coming up of two minds on it.

“It’s a bit—well. It’s hard to say? I don’t have a super high opinion of righteousness. Sometimes natural things have to happen. Keeping too tight a grip on things could be dangerous. If you don’t let a forest fire rage every so often, dead wood builds up, oxygen becomes more heavy. Eventually you’ll slip up and that fire or tornado could become devastating. If I knew a tornado was coming, I think I’d just evacuate the Texans, who have shelters. Lots of tornadoes there. But at the same time, I kill predators, so that what they eat isn’t over-hunted and the predators don’t starve to death. If we don’t step in, people could get hurt, the ecosytem might collapse. So I guess my answer would be… ‘if it was worth it.’”

GM: Sister Gorczak slowly opens her hands, releasing the uncrushed moth to resume its flight.

“Some incorrectly attribute the name of the butterfly effect to the author Ray Bradbury for reasons I hope will soon become apparent to you. For your disruption of Mrs. LeBaron’s class, you will report to in-school suspension tomorrow and for however many days it takes you to adequately read, ponder, and write a report on Bradbury’s short story, A Sound of Thunder, and its relevance to your careless throw and its seen and unforeseen consequences.”

“Unless you seek mercy, that is,” the nun-principal adds fervently.

Brook: Brook watches the moth fly away, still not so amused that she got the oil of her hands on its wings possibly. As long as it stays in the room and feeds on her old sheets, it’ll be fine—but still. Hearing her go on, he slowly deflates and bites back any audible sigh. Despite him not screwing around when he threw, he’s being punished. Even when he steps in and patches up the girl who could have really made a mess and gotten anemic. Then there’s her push for him to religiously absolve himself with some good old American masochism. No.

“I don’t want to seek mercy, Principal, no. I’ll just accept the punishment.” There’s no arguing with this lady, she wants to see him in her sick… zealot pain. Like he’s sure she is, not showing her face. “For the record, however, Principal Gorczak? I didn’t mess around. I’ve just never thrown a dart. It was a freak accident, and I applied first aid to alleviate it.”

GM: “For the record, Brook, son of Mary–,” the principal replies sharply, “–you have not been accused of ‘messing around’, nor are you being punished for such. Report to the library tomorrow to obtain the short story, so that you may better educate yourself and be less likely to impede that of your peers.”

“You are dismissed,” she adds with a cold finality.

Brook: Brook recoils on the inside. Calling his mother ‘Mary’ instead of Ranger Madcatcher always puts him off. It compounds on his pissy little attitude towards the woman, with the walk, the unfair punishment, and now the sharp little retort. Days like this make that GED look better and better.

Without a word, he turns the knob and closes the door behind him on the way out. Somehow the empty wing still creeps him out, striding quickly through the halls with his mind fastened tightly onto the nun. Sister Sinister. Even offering religious corporal punishment has to be illegal. Maybe Undersheriff Bauman has a handbook or some shit he can crack open to see. It doesn’t matter. Least he doesn’t have to go to school normally tomorrow. For now it’s… where next. Library, right. Hopefully Danny has gotten his ancient civ pinned up, and he’ll have something he can do to keep his mind off things. Maybe if he just does that short story today and tonight, and spends tomorrow doing his civilization? He already knows a bit of Viking lore.

Hazel: Attila Awakens


GM: Harvey’s truck flies over the asphalt lines. The siren echoes off the mountains. As the peaks fall away, the Green Lady snakes into view, serpentine and dark in the bewitching hour, with Witiko Falls littering its sides like shed skin. Few stars still wink from the indigo sky. Chained to her throne, vain Cassiopeia wanes beside her paramour.

The radio crackles. Harvey snatches it up. “What’s the situation, Ferg? Over.”

Another crackle. “EMS just arrived, boss. They said they got lost on the roads, then got redirected or some-such. Hell if I called them. Over.”

Hazel: I’m sure they did.

GM: Harvey’s silence seems to echo Hazel’s thought.

“Boss?” comes the dispatch’s voice.

Hazel: Hazel says nothing aloud, however, continuing to stare out the broken window. Her mind is still too occupied by recent happenings to be thankful for the blanket’s presence yet.

GM: “10-4, Ferg,” Harvey answers, then hits the turn hard onto Last Danse Road. “They identify the victim? Over.”

Another crackle. “Yeah, it’s Brody’s boy. He’s in real bad shape, boss. Over.”

The undersheriff gives his daughter a pained glance.

Hazel: The words ’Brody’s boy’ make Hazel’s expression go very, very flat. Can this day get any more…

GM: “10-4,” Harvey says, “We’re almost there.”

Hazel: Yes. It likely can.

“Uh. What happened to him?” Hazel finally asks. In real bad shape. Does that mean anything to her? She’s still reeling from her father’s deal with the devil. And the danger her mother may be in, even if it’s not immediate like her ‘reading’ last night indicated. And the panic attack, and ROSEWATER, and her nocturnal visitor, and… everything else. Now her ex-boyfriend is another all-too likely victim of the government’s cover-up?

Hazel honestly isn’t sure how she’s supposed to react. None of this has any… established precedent. She doesn’t wish anything ill on him, she decides after a moment. No more than she’d wish ill on any other person. She’d have been happy just to leave things at that and go on with their separate lives, not out of animosity, just simple recognition of the fact they weren’t right for one another and any reunion would be all-too awkward.

Guilt encroaches. Is it wrong for her to be preoccupied over things being awkward? Should she just feel bad that he was in accident? She hopes, likely in vain, that her consternation isn’t showing on her face. The only thing she is certain of is that she wishes this hadn’t happened. What’s up for dispute are the reasons why.

GM: “What’s the situation, Ferg? We got a 10-57, 10-15 or what? Over.”

Hazel: If only emotions came in numeric codes too. If only everything came in numeric codes too.

GM: “Don’t know, boss. I just got a call from Father Ostergaard about a potential 10-15. Over.”

Hazel: Another pang of guilt. Should she really be thinking about her own social issues when Lance might be… she doesn’t even know what he might be. 10-15 covers a lot of things. I wish this damn thing hadn’t happened!

GM: “10-4, Ferg. ETA 5, 10-5 to EMT. Harv out.”

Hazel: Hazel doesn’t know what to say to her dad when the radio chatter ends. Finally she blurts out, “I hate this!” Her face isn’t angry. It’s… frustrated. Doubting. Confused. Guilty. Maybe sad, too.

GM: “Me too,” her dad says quietly. In the twilight’s violet cast, the pine-shrouded angels of Mountain Shadow Cemetery appear. Their stony faces glow bone-white under the full moon. “Me too.”

Hazel: Hazel trails off, giving up. She wants an instruction manual, and grabs for the nearest one. “Daddy, what is the socially expected and appropriate way to feel about this? Besides. Hating it.” She then clarifies, “The fact of its existence. And…” She trails off again.

GM: “What?” her dad responds, clearly thrown off guard and already emotionally exhausted. “I—I don’t know, Hazel.”

Hazel: Hazel looks even more flustered. “W-what? Why not?” The second sentence comes out more sharply than she might have intended.

GM: Harvey sighs, his temple and chin crusted with blood and now swollen and bruised, his favorite hat lost. “For some things they just haven’t written the rules.”

Hazel: Hazel doesn’t know what to say to that. She wishes she had a wet cloth to wipe his face. “You lost your hat,” she finally states after a moment. “You can probably find another just like it online.”

GM: Her dad just clenches his jaw. Gravestones mark both time and distance as the patrol truck speeds on.

Hazel: Not for the first time, and not for the last, Hazel wonders if she’s said the wrong thing.

GM: The grave-angels have no answer.

GM: The Lutheran Church of the Almighty Shadow rises from the sprawling cemetery. The slope-roofed, multi-story, late nineteenth century church building is fashioned of white-washed pine, neo-gothic wood-framed windows, and stained glass-inset doors. A neon, dagger-shaped cross hangs just below the church’s long-defunct belfry.

church.jpg

The cross’ rose-colored light mingles with the ambulance’s frenetic emergency lights. As Harvey parks the truck, Hazel sees Lance’s gurney being rolled into the back of the ambulance by a pair of EMTs. Nearby, Reverend Ostergaard watches the sorrowful scene.

Hazel: Hazel stares at the sight for a long moment, then awkwardly tries to make conversation. “You know Daddy, neo-gothic architecture was popular around the same time as neoclassical. And in competition with it. It was. Like the barbarians were at war with the Romans again?” She’s grasping.

GM: Her father’s response seems equally inelegant as he stares at her, trying to make sense of what she’s saying—and then realizes that it’s a futile effort. “I’m—I’m sorry,” he says, hurriedly exiting the truck as he tries to flag down the EMTs.

Hazel: “Um. You don’t have to be. No one was hurt. In that ‘war.’” The insensitivity, or at least poor timing of the statement hits Hazel the moment it leaves her mouth. Someone, here and now, was just hurt. Badly. She hopes her dad was too distracted to overhear what she said as she climbs out of the truck and follows after him. She’s not sure what she can do, but… being there seems like the right thing to do.

GM: No longer tucked beneath her blanket, Hazel is struck by the cold. The crash site’s spike of adrenaline is gone, and she feels spent, physically, mentally, and emotionally. After a few steps into the street, she dimly makes out her father talking rapidly to an EMT. The latter says something and points to the ground, not far from where Hazel is standing. The man then jumps into the ambulance’s driver’s seat and bangs on the side of the vehicle.

The other EMT shouts back, then goes to shut the back doors. Hazel can barely see Lance’s body—and has to trust that it is indeed her ex-boyfriend lying so still on the collapsed gurney. The figure is wrapped up with blankets and bandages, fitted with a respirator mask, and then utterly obscured by the closing ambulance doors. The ambulance’s siren loudly flares back to life, and the vehicle speeds away, its emergency lights casting strange shadows on the nearby graves.

Hazel is startled by the sudden weight of a blanket wrapped being wrapped around her shoulders. “It’s cold, child,” Reverend Ostergaard says kindly. The Pastor of the Almighty Shadow is a handsome man who bears his years well with just the hint of grey at his temples. He is dressed in a heavy coat and carries a flashlight and a gentle if somber smile.

Osterg.png

Hazel: Hazel stares at the indistinct figure on the stretcher. She’s not sure what she’s supposed to feel right now, and then just like that, he’s gone without her ever seeing him. In the hazy half-light, half-dark of the cold early dawn, nothing seems certain. She’s about to head back to her dad’s truck so she can retrieve her coat from her backpack (with all that was happening, it simply slipped her mind) when the blanket’s weight settles on her shoulders. She reflexively stiffens at the unexpected contact, but it just a blanket, not someone’s hand. She looks up at the priest.

“Thank you, Father. It is cold. Ah… what happened here?”

GM: Her father walks up, drawing the pastor’s gaze. “Sheriff Bauman,” the bespectacled priest says with a respectful nod.

“It’s Undersheriff, Father,” the lawman says wearily, but without ire.

Hazel: Hazel’s mouth opens at the priest’s address, but her father beats her to the punch.

GM: “Would you like to come into the church?” he asks. “It’s warmer, and I could make you all some coffee, tea, or coco.”

Hazel: Hazel checks her watch to see if she’s going to be late for work. “Warmer is better.” She looks towards her dad, who probably wants to hear the full story too.

There is a twinge of awkwardness. This would be the first time she’s been inside the church in… quite a while. She attended as a child, because Dad and his family were Lutheran. Then when she was twelve, she put her foot down and proclaimed God was as nonsensical as Santa Claus. She’d never enjoyed the crowds anyway and was tired of getting up early. Mom, another atheist, made no effort to sway her religious convictions, leaving her father that unenviable and ultimately futile task by himself.

GM: Harvey similarly checks his watch, reading like Hazel that is is 6:48, an hour or so from true sunrise and the start of school at 7:45 am. “Father, I don’t mean to let my daughter freeze or turn down a good’s man hospitality, particularly when he’s my pastor, but we’re in something of a hurry. It might also help if you can point things out as they happened.”

The priest sighs and nods slowly. “I wish it could, but I’m afraid I don’t have much to offer.”

Hazel: Disappointing. “Well, I suppose I won’t risk being late for work, at least.”

GM: “Run it by us one more time, Father. Please,” her dad asks, taking out a notepad and pencil.

Hazel: Hazel turns her gaze back towards the pastor’s, awaiting what answers he can share.

GM: Reverend Ostergaard nods again, then shines his flashlight on the window below the neon cross." I had been at the organ, playing through the witching hour. I went to bed thereafter, so perhaps a quarter past four o’clock. I slept soundly, until I awoke to what sounded maybe like shouting. As you know, Sheriff, I mean Undersheriff, I’ve had some vandals harass the church, and things tend to get worse the closer to Devil’s Night."

Harvey nods.

“So I looked out the window, but I couldn’t see much on account of me not having my glasses on–,” he says tapping his frames, “–and with the floodlights on. So I grabbed my flashlight, and went out to confront the likely vandals. But when I finally made it outside, I saw Lance on the road, bleeding and badly beaten just a little ways from the running car.” The priest once again points to a still-running vehicle, which Hazel originally missed in her cold numbness. She immediately recognizes it as Lance’s truck.

It’s a sky-blue single-cab F100 with frog-lights and black leather seats. It was Lance’s early graduation present from his parents. The couple spent a lot of time in that truck, driving to and from school, out into the fields to stare at the stars, and to study more earthly matters as well. And now, it sits parked, pulled up neatly to the curb, its driver door still open and its lights on.

“Did you or anyone else touch the truck?” Harvey asks.

“Not me–,” the priest replies, “–and the ambulance men didn’t either, at least not that I saw.”

Hazel: Hazel would normally think to ask who dislikes Lance, who could have potential motive to do such a thing. But they already know who did it.

She stares at Lance’s truck for a long moment. She remembers asking Lance about it when he said it was from his parents. His mom died years ago, after all. He’d answered that it was partly bought with her life insurance, so he considered it from his mother too. Hazel thought that was sweet. What a nice way to remember her. The sight of the truck just sitting there, running, makes something twist in Hazel’s stomach.

“It’s wasting gas, being left on like that,” she mutters. Even if the father has done right to leave it on.

GM: “I didn’t want to touch anything–,” Reverend Ostergaard explains in a tone that indicates his confusion at Hazel’s seeming accusation, “–not wanting to contaminate any evidence.”

“No, you did right, Father,” the undersheriff says, who then turns to his daughter, “I’ll check the truck and turn it off in just a minute, Hazel, or soon.”

Hazel: “Good,” Hazel remarks with a surprising degree of relief. “I didn’t mean to imply you were responsible for it, Father. I simply dislike waste as a matter of principle.”

GM: “Oh, yes, child, forgive me. I do apologize if I, as you say, ‘contaminated’ the scene though.” He shines the light on the spot on the road where Hazel sees scuffed blood stains and pair of broken, loose teeth. One glints with a silver filling. “I was a field medic in the war, Sheriff, so I did what I could. He was hurt badly.”

Hazel: Hazel stares at the bloody teeth for a moment. It’s not entirely unlike the severed hand. A less essential piece of anatomy, perhaps, but also one more familiar to her.

GM: “If… if I hadn’t stopped to get dressed, I might have been able to do more, maybe see more.”

“I’m sure you did all you could, Father,” Harvey says, glancing at his daughter to gauge her reaction to the second grisly scene he’s dragged her to in less than two hours. “Did you see or hear anyone else, Father?”

Hazel: Conscious of her dad’s gaze, Hazel endeavors to keep the discomfort off her face. It’s not so visceral as the hand, but… after a moment, though, the emotion fades as she pulls out her binoculars to examine the teeth up close, still listening to the conversation between her father and his pastor with half an ear.

GM: “I… I’m not sure,” Reverend Ostergaard says with a furrowed brow. “When I was still in the church, putting on my coat, I heard something… like… I don’t know. Nothing, likely.” He looks towards Hazel. “Maybe someone shout out. It could have been Lance… I don’t know.” His voice grows a bit more certain however as he adds, “But when I exited the church doors, I’m pretty sure I saw a car head down that way.”

Hazel: “Is it probable that anyone else would have been here at this hour?” Hazel asks, not lowering her binoculars as she asks the question.

GM: The priest nods, more in contemplation than confirmation, to Hazel’s inquiry.

Hazel: “What model of car?” she then inquires.

GM: “I don’t know—I only saw the brake lights. It could have been just a coincidence. You know, a car racing by. Kids do that on this stretch since it’s straight and rarely traveled at night. They could have passed Lance right by, since his headlights were pointed the other way.”

Harvey keeps writing.

Hazel: It seems clergymen can offer as few answers on matters material as matters spiritual. Even Hazel, however, has enough presence of mind not to utter the admittedly petty thought aloud.

GM: “Or… maybe it was just a trick of the eyes. I mean, I was surprised to see Lance’s truck and his headlights. It could have been an afterimage and nothing more. A trick of the eye.”

Harvey doesn’t nod, but notes down his suspicions.

Hazel: Hazel lowers her binoculars, turns to face the priest and abruptly asks, “Father, would you be so kind as to assist me with a spiritual dilemma I am currently struggling with?”

GM: “I will certainly try, child,” the priest answers gently, his breath steaming in the cold. Harvey just raises a bruised brow.

Hazel: “And when Jesus thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth.’” Hazel pauses, as if to signify the quote is over and then continues, “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.” Another pause. “But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.”

GM: “Hazel,” her dad buts in, concerned that his daughter is rushing at rabbit-holes with typical terrible timing.

Hazel: Hazel doesn’t look at her dad. “I would like to hear your opinion, Father, on what common underlying thread these verses may possess.”

GM: “Hazel, we’re not hear to debate scriptures with the pastor,” Harvey reprimands, shooting Reverend Ostergaard an apologetic glance.

Hazel: “This is not a scriptural debate,” Hazel answers dismissively.

GM: The priest raises a placating hand to the irritated lawman. He then turns to Hazel, his face lit by the moon and downturned flashlight. “I sense your question may have another intended answer, child, but I believe that all three verses are evidences of the solae, that is, that salvation comes through grace alone, by faith alone, and as instructed by scripture alone. Each verse pertains to the Almighty’s power over death and hell, and the faith which enables us to receive that grace, and of the power of the scriptures to teach us the truth of that grace and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

The priest’s words are plain—but there is a soft, undeniable power to them. To an atheist like Hazel more comfortable reading about Sumerian demonology or neuroscience bulletins, Father Ostergaard’s simple faith is a like a gentle fire that can be avoided perhaps, but not brushed aside or dismissed.

Hazel: In that moment, as the priest calmly interprets meaning from that which Hazel had intended to be confusing and meaningless (until she revealed her own meaning, pursuant to another point), she acutely remembers how uncomfortable church made her. Yes, part of why she stopped going was a simple lack of belief in God. But twelve years old was a hard time for the then-girl with autism too.

She remembers being so conscious of how she looked—smelly, acne-ridden, and overweight. Dad simply would not let her wear her unusual unwashed sweatpants to church, and she felt acutely uncomfortable in the nice Sunday clothes she otherwise never wore. Like she was being put on display for all the world to see in her ugliness. And the way the priest looked at her. Patient. Understanding. _Pitying. _

She couldn’t bear it. She can’t bear it, not as the adolescent memories abruptly come rushing back.

GM: Harvey watches the scene, then places a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “Hazel, why don’t we let the good pastor go back inside. If we have any other questions, we can swing by later today, when the sun is shinning and the air’s a bit warmer—and no one is as pressed for time.” He taps his watch poignantly.

Hazel: “You’re holding back on us!” Hazel abruptly snaps, her earlier point forgotten. Are her cheeks turning red? “You are deliberately inconveniencing my father and obstructing his ability to perform his job!”

GM: The priest’s gentle face takes on a look of surprise.

Harvey’s is far stormier. He stands between his daughter and the pastor, blocking her accusatory stare. “Stop this, Hazel, right now. It’s been a long, long night. Right now, you need to calm down.” He turns back to Reverend Ostergaard. “I’m sorry, Father. Thank you for all your help. If we need anything else, I or one of my deputies will call.”

The pastor gives Hazel another concerned look, but nods to the undersheriff’s authoritative tone. “Peace be unto both of you. These doors will always welcome you.” He then walks back up the slope, and into the Church of the Almighty Shadow.

Harvey waits until the pastor is clearly inside and out of ear-shot. “What the hell was that about?”

Hazel: “Opiate!” Hazel flusteredly declares. “An all-too literal quote, as it appears, for religion has dulled everyone’s minds!”

GM: “What?!” her dad exclaims, his patience level clearly spent. Reflexively, he goes to tug off his hat—but then remembers that it’s lost. He sighs. “Look, kiddo, I know it’s been one hell of a night. I need to inspect the grounds and the truck. Why don’t you wait in the patrol truck—or better yet, how about I call Lowder to pick you up, drive you to my place, and get you to work on time.”

Hazel: “‘Religion is the opiate of the masses.’ It’s a widely circulated and just as widely misinterpreted quote of Karl Marx’s. What he actually meant by describing religion as an opiate was that…”

Hazel trails off. That still likely doesn’t make any sense to her father, but explaining (well, abortedly explaining) something more within her realm of experience leaves her in a better frame of mind. She then continues, somewhat more calmly,

“Okay. You’re right, Daddy, I approached things all wrong. Half of being an investigator is talking to people, and that’s why I won’t make a career of it. But he was holding back on us. That much I could tell.”

GM: Harvey regards his now more sensible, or at least calmer, daughter. “Why would Father Ostergaard lie? He was the one who called 911. The EMT said that if Lance makes it, it will because of the pastor’s first aid.” Her dad pauses after the remark, regretting his bluntness. Or at least his potentially upsetting slip.

Hazel: Hazel nods, much preferring to deal with others in a blunt capacity. “I don’t question his role in helping Lance. Nor do I think he was providing us with deliberate misinformation. He just seemed… as if he were hedging. And embarrassed, which is an emotion I admittedly know rather well. But he didn’t seem guilty. I don’t think he meant to do us any wrong.”

Hazel pauses in thought for a moment. “All I know is that you’ve told me to trust intuition where investigative work is concerned, no matter how illogical I may find it. And even if my feeling was baseless, and the father really wasn’t holding out on anything significant… that’s for you to decide, as the man who’s wearing the undersheriff’s badge. Not him.”

GM: Harvey looks up at the church and its rose-neon cross.

Hazel: “Well-meaning men have committed egregious actions in its name. I might not believe in God, Daddy, but I think we can both agree that man is fallible.”

GM: “The flesh is weak…” he says wearily, still staring at the church. He sighs, then turns back. “Okay, kiddo, I really didn’t read any of that, but maybe I’m biased. No, strike that, I am biased. He’s the family pastor after all. And you’re right, you gotta go with your gut. Not everything’s science and stats.”

Hazel: “An outside eye can help. Even if the talking may be best left to an inside voice,” Hazel grants.

GM: Harvey chews on that a bit more, then says, “Okay, how about this, let’s check over the grounds, the truck, and then maybe we’ll have better answers—or at least know better questions when we re-interview Father Ostergaard.”

Hazel: Hazel nods her approval. “If we can have more facts to back us up—in particular any that may relate to his omissions—so much the better.”

GM: Her dad looks down at his watch—and the time that marches ever onward. “Okay, so we’re at a crossroads, kiddo. I can’t leave the site… particularly because…”

Hazel: “Yes. Re-interviewing him can be put off until later. But the scene is best examined while fresh.”

GM: He doesn’t complete the thought. “But I can’t promise I’ll be done here in time to get you to school, I mean work, on time. So what do you want to do? I can call a deputy, or I can call Uncle Leo. I mean, they went a month without a librarian. Surely they can go another day. I’ll explain how it’s all my fault, pumpkin. But it’s your call.”

Hazel: Hazel frowns, thinking. “…no, Daddy. I shouldn’t be late for work. You go over the scene and have Lowder pick me up, I’m sure you’ll do a fine job of things. I can always look it over later. Even if I won’t be able to gather as many findings, I can corroborate with you.” But that isn’t all of it. Hazel already has plans to blow off her time while she’s at work researching several other topics of personal interest. She should spend at least some of her workday on actual work. She doesn’t like the thought of approaching Leo for answers on Layne without doing the job he’s hired her to do.

GM: Harvey nods, seemingly both surprised and pleased at Hazel’s work ethic. He walks over to his patrol truck, radios in for the discussed ride, then picks up his crime scene kit from a locked box in the truck-bed. He then pulls out some cones and flares to redirect the non-existent traffic away from the area. Once completed, he returns to Hazel, holding out a pair of gloves to his daughter and a flashlight. “Let’s see what we see then.”

Hazel: Hazel slips them on. She might have to go soon, but she’ll do her best with the scene while she’s here. She lays the priest’s blanket down inside the truck. “You should return that once I leave.”

GM: Harvey nods.

Working alone, both the undersheriff and his daughter are fairly skilled detectives. Together, they are exceptional.

They find several clues. Starting with Lance’s F100, the pair notes the obvious details: the truck is running, Lance’s keys are in the ignition, the driver’s door is open wide. The seat is pushed back to accommodate Lance’s height, leading the pair to conclude that the truck’s owner was driving and got out of the vehicle in a hurry. However, the truck is parked neatly against the curb, suggesting the stopping of the vehicle was not so rushed.

It’s Hazel, though, who spots the other clue: the passenger door. Although it appears to be closed, it is not, but rests ever so slightly ajar. No stranger to this truck, Hazel easily recalls that the passenger door’s locking mechanism was always a bit sticky. In order to fully close and engage the locks, it had to be hefted slightly up and slammed rather hard. Lance used to claim that he didn’t get it fixed because it gave him an excuse to “be the gentleman” and get the door for her. Hazel didn’t mind the sweetness, or not having to go to the effort of closing it herself, but the simple presence of something broken that should have been fixed was mildly irksome to her.

Now, however, it is a clue.

Inspection of the ‘attack’ site yields several more. First, they quickly rule-out a hit and run. This was up close and personal. The assailant clearly attacked with a ferocity that can only be described as rage. Together, the father-daughter pair discerns that the weapon used was a bludgeoning implement—and that it was used a lot. A couple of marks on the road have traces of bright silvery metal. Hazel and Harvey almost speak their suspicion at the same time. “Bat. Aluminum.”

Although identifying the weapon is encouraging as they try to put the pieces together, the revelation is also unsettling, particularly given the amount of blood. Given the weapon, it is likely that Lance was struck repeatedly in the face and head. Also, there’s the fact that the tracks they are reading are literally spelled out in her ex-boyfriend’s blood. Perhaps mortally so.

True to the priest’s words, the tracks are disturbed and smeared from Ostergaard’s administrations. However, they soon become convinced that the tracks belong to Lance, the priest, and a third figure, likely a male. Furthermore, they follow this third set and find that the figure, upon finishing the brutal beating, stepped back and then began pacing, back forth, side to side, as if they were looking for something —but in a hasty, sloppy manner rather than the way one would carefully, slowly inspect the ground if looking for a dropped key or shell cartridge. Instead, as Hazel points out, it looks more akin to the pattern Lydia used when she frantically searched for her toddler after Hazel slipped away at the amusement park.

But then, the tracks fade off, as the pacing rubbed away the blood, making it unclear where of how the assailant fled. Normally, such a grisly task might incite a panic attack or cause even the most hale of minds to recoil or shudder, but the hard, bloody clues only bolster Hazel’s resolve to catch the bastards who did this. She may be unsure how she feels about her ex-boyfriend, besides a marked awkwardness, but she suspects Big Brother’s hands are all over this—and cannot stand the thought of her friends and family being targeted by the government. A line has been crossed. It’s personal.

By the time Harvey opens up the fingerprint kit to see if he can lift anything meaningful from the truck, Deputy Lowder arrives. Harvey sets down the kit and escorts his daughter to the patrol car.

Hazel: Hazel finally pulls away from the examined scene. It was more than a bit macabre, but that’s only steeled her resolve to do what must be done. She’s even smiling a bit as she strips off her gloves.

“It was fun doing this together, Daddy. Rather more than dancing, I might add.”

GM: Her dad smiles, pulling off his own gloves as he opens and closes the door for her.

“Thanks, Tina,” he adds to the female driver.

“What happened to your face, boss?” the deputy asks.

“I’ll tell you later.”

“Yeah, right. I’ve heard that line and seen that look before,” she says, a mixture of irritation and sadness in her eyes.

“I appreciate you helping out, Tina. Let’s just leave it at that.”

Hazel: Hazel purses her lips. She was about to add something stronger, but oftentimes it’s better just to let her dad handle the talking.

GM: Harvey looks down at his daughter. “Okay, pumpkin, I hope you can have a great day at work. Try not to let all… this bother you, okay? I’ll drop you a line maybe at lunch if that’s all right, just to make sure everything’s good.”

Hazel: “I will, I won’t, and it is, Daddy,” Hazel smiles.

GM: Her dad’s expression takes on that goofy look like he’s about to tousle her hair, but he glances over at Deputy Lowder and holds back. “I love you, kiddo.”

Hazel: “Love you too. I’ll want to hear all about the rest of your findings later.”

GM: “10-4,” he says, still grinning. He taps the top of the patrol car, steps back, and waves as Deputy Lowder puts the car into gear and drives away with Hazel beside her.

Even dressed in her masculine uniform and with her dark hair pulled straight back into a ponytail, Deputy Christina Lowder is pretty. Too pretty, as Lydia often complained. Cruising down Last Danse Road, Tina lets the silence drag out before eventually saying, “Seems like the two of you had a wild night.”

Christina_Lowder.png

Hazel: Hazel has never been good at making conversation. She stares out the window and lets the silence stretch until the young police officer, somewhat to her relief, finally breaks it. “More like a wild morning. My dad got the call at Too-Early-O-Clock in the AM. I’d normally still be in bed right now.” Her dad’s co-worker doesn’t need to know about the earlier call. She isn’t sure whether the government is going to suppress the story of the car crash or let it out, but better to play it safe until she knows.

GM: Tina just nods. “Well, I’ll do my best to get you to work on time. I can’t hit the flashers, and time’s not on our side, but I’ll do my best.”

Hazel: “Thanks. It shouldn’t be too bad if I’m late, nevertheless. There aren’t a great many students using the library early in the morning.”

GM: Tina seems visibly relieved at hearing Hazel’s reply and tone.

Hazel: “You seem relieved,” Hazel somewhat awkwardly observes.

GM: Tina laughs. “That obvious, huh?”

Hazel: “Likely so,” Hazel posits—particularly if she could read it.

GM: The hazel-green-eyed deputy smiles. “Well, gotta keep the boss happy—and the boss ain’t happy unless his daughter is.”

Hazel: “And you are the niece of his boss. An interlocking chain of familial relationships and county law enforcement superiors. Relative, boss, relative, boss.”

GM: “Ah, yes, I guess you could say that.” Another semi-awkward pause. “Feel free to turn on the radio, close your eyes, and catch forty or so winks, or whatever.”

Outside, Witiko Falls is slowly waking up, even though the sun itself won’t crest the mountains for a half-hour or so. It’s that time when kids beg for ‘five more minutes’, type-A parents make flapjacks and eggs downstairs, and today’s print of the Witiko Falls Tribune still rests on frost-covered lawns.

Hazel: _Was that an odd statement to make? It is an interlocking chain. _ Having failed in her attempt at small talk, Hazel takes her dad’s deputy up on the offer of further winks.

GM: The nap is short but sweet. It comes to end with Tina gently rocking Hazel awake in front the Bauman houses. “Rise and shine.”

Hazel: Hazel instantly bolts upright and pulls away from Tina’s touch, which more than wakes her up.

GM: “Sorry,” Tina apologizes.

Hazel: “My apologies. I generally dislike physical contact with others. But you couldn’t have known,” Hazel offers.

GM: “I’ll keep that in mind,” she says.

Hazel: Hazel isn’t sure what to respond to that and simply gets out of the car.

Thankful they are able to swing back to her dad’s, she stuffs some extra food into her lunch sack to eat for breakfast at work, takes a very quick shower (skipping her hair), and changes out of the clothes she wore all day yesterday and threw on several hours ago in a sleepy daze. After drying off, she pulls on a knee-length navy dress, the same black leggings as yesterday, and matching ballet flats. Her parents have learned all too well over the years that she doesn’t like much variance in her clothing—if it’s not some shade of black, gray, or navy, it’s out. After briefly scoffing how few womens’ clothes have pockets, she adds a dark gray cardigan with two of them to store the tape in—the second tape. She’s not letting it out of her sight.

Hazel didn’t and couldn’t have taken on the scary government men in a brawl, who yanked the camera from her flailing hands like candy from a baby. Too bad for them it wasn’t the only one. In fact, the footage is probably a lot better on the second camera. The angle was steady and the SVCD (technically not a tape) is higher quality than a VHS anyways, even before being small enough to slip inside a pocket. As for the Spooks, Hazel’s panicked screaming and frankly puerile profanity should mean they won’t take her seriously as a threat, which is good—because she certainly takes them seriously.

The victory is hollow, though. She wanted to corroborate her findings with her dad. Help him do his job, like she did this morning, even if he couldn’t say anything to her. But it looks like the car crash is outside his jurisdiction, which smells even worse than she did as a thirteen-year-old who refused to use deodorant. A simple car crash should be handled by local police. Simple if it weren’t for the hand she found. Is that ROSEWATER’s purpose, investigating paranormal activity in Witiko Falls? A second thought makes her wonder to what extent the government is responsible for that activity.

Well, speculation is as cheap. The facts are that the government set up shop at one of the two… epicenters to the nodes of significance, has an interest in paranormal incidents, and goes to brutal lengths to preserve their secrecy. Next to legally dead Mrs. Griswold and poor Layne Tuttle, Hazel has to admit she’s lucky to get away with just a panic attack and confiscated video camera. She’ll watch its contents later tonight, pick up everything she missed in the heat of the moment, and then… she isn’t sure what next. But she is sure of one thing:

Her dad is mixed up in this business.

And her mom possibly is too.

When Hazel was a child, her obsessions brought her some amount of grief. Classmates teased how she could never shut up once she started talking. Her parents would only listen to so many lectures about Rosicrucianism, the differences between Secret Chiefs and Ascended Masters, or who the authors of The Kybalion were. Those topics were merely interesting to her. But her dad, this is personal. She doesn’t know what she can do about this devil’s bargain he’s struck. Whether she can ‘save’ him. Whether he needs saving. She’s just as in the dark about Nostrum and her mother. All she knows is that she needs to know more.

She needs to be more cautious, too. Yes, she saw what happened to poor Layne Tuttle and Mrs. Griswold, if indirectly, but that was nothing against the terrifying immediacy of being seized by faceless government men in dark suits—who somehow opened a locked door without opening it. She can’t express any more opinions on trampled constitutional rights to people like Murff, who likely can’t help her anyways. Her newfound silence should make sense to ROSEWATER, too, if that’s reached their ears. It’s reasonable she’d be scared after her recent encounter.

But she’s not scared. She’d be minding her own business if she were scared. She just needs ROSEWATER to think she is. She also needs to be careful with who she can trust if she’s to cement that deception. But who? Her father, the man she thought she could turn to for anything, is compromised.

Mom? If they approached things from a legal angle, her recording could prove useful. But ROSEWATER has likely been interested in Nostrum’s affairs for years, and Hazel still hears the whir of chopper blades—just like the chopper her mother was presumably boarding. The Spooks don’t need to have agents undercover everywhere (though they well could), just arrangements with the right people. The they have one with the sheriff’s department, as she’s seen firsthand. The mayor’s office is probably a safe bet too. And Nostrum, the people with the most money in town, sitting right at a second nodal epicenter? Her mother could be so easy for the Spooks to reach an accord with, hating the town as much as she does. How many more devil’s bargains have they struck with people? Still, that’s but more speculation. Hazel will ‘interview’ her mom, investigate Nostrum, and decide how fully—if at all—to bring her in later.

Another name flashes across her mind. Leo. Of all the people in Witiko Falls, he’s the only one who’s seemed truly… unafraid of the Spooks. She doubts the Holocaust survivor cares for their actions, no matter how much he professes them to be the natural order of things. Leo’s also been the only person to actually tell her something of what’s going on—or at least who’s promised to do so. He hasn’t earned her full trust, but he merits further investigation. Their discussion about Layne should prove an excellent opportunity to do that and learn more about the government’s activities.

Then there’s Layne. Yes, idiot Layne who can’t remember her own lunch without a sticky note, but Other-Layne was bright enough. And assuredly has an axe to grind against ROSEWATER for doing… whatever they did to her. It’s possible the government has left a few ‘surprises’ behind in her head, but maybe Hazel can ‘fix’ Layne. The Falls are rumored to have healing properties, and there’s only one way to find out for sure. As for Layne herself, she seems content as she is, but Other-Layne was miserable. The question of whether it’s better to be a happy imbecile or miserable intellectual doesn’t even cross Hazel’s mind.

Last of all is the teenage boy the Spooks hauled away. If he ever returns from ROSEWATER, she can find his face—the tape likely caught it. Even better, she can find his name if the government lets the story go public. He could be another ally, depending on what the men in black do to him.

Hazel has so many questions and so few answers. But a slow smile nevertheless steals over her face as the gears turn in her head.

_Congratulations, ROSEWATER. _

_I have autism. And you just became my newest obsession. _

GM: Despite Tina’s best efforts, Hazel misses the morning announcements and all of homeroom period. Her ‘assistant’, Jake Zimmers, is waiting for her in the Chimera. He lets her know that Mrs. Sperle tried buzzing Hazel a couple times on the intercom during homeroom period. “She wanted to let you know that your first class will arrive during third period, with, uh, Mrs. LeBaron’s World Lit. She also said something about making sure you clock in and out on the computer. She was kinda miffed,” the skinhead adds, rather tentatively as if testing the waters.

Hazel: “She’s right to be. Being late is disrespectful,” Hazel answers. “I am surprised to see you here, however, Jake. Were you suspended again?”

GM: “You could say that,” the ghost-eyed youth says, picking up some labels.

Hazel: “The Constitution theoretically gives us the right to say anything. Whether we choose to say factually accurate things is another matter entirely,” Hazel replies, regarding him expectantly.

GM: Jake pauses and looks like he’s about to say something flippant, but decides otherwise. “You said anyone who wanted to help out in the library could. I’m here, and I want to help.”

Hazel: Hazel actually looks rather taken aback for a moment, but the smile she manages in return is a genuine one. “I did. And I would be glad to accept that help.”

GM: “Cool, you want me to pick up where I left off, or start somewhere else?”

Hazel: Hazel nods. “Where you last let off. This is an open period for you?”

GM: “You could say that,” he replies with a half-smirk. He then takes the stack of labels and heads off before Hazel can reply—or at least not without her calling out or following him.

Hazel: Somehow Hazel isn’t surprised. She does not stop or follow him, however, but approaches the front desk and picks up the phone to call Agnes.

GM: As Hazel moves to her desk, she finds it as she left it last night—save one exception. The smell of bleach is stronger. Fresher. And there are new depressions in the carpet. The same kind, just a little bit to the left of where the old ones were.

Hazel: She instinctively glances towards Mrs. Griswold’s death-stains—if, indeed, they are still left.

GM: It is hard to tell, but new librarian suspects that the ‘remains’ of the old librarian are just as bright as they were yesterday—if not brighter.

Hazel: Hazel frowns deeply. If ROSEWATER learned she was investigating her predecessor’s death and sought to further cover their tracks, she wouldn’t be surprised. But this doesn’t appear to be anything like that.

What interest would someone have in those bleach-stains besides further obfuscating what happened to Mrs. Griswold? Well, sure, there’s ‘find out the truth’ like she herself wants to. But why would such an individual tip their hand with the bleach? This doesn’t fall into neat categories, and Hazel doesn’t like it. Maybe the answer is perfectly mundane, like Psalms trying harder to scrub the stains out. But a detective assumes nothing.

Either way, that’s not a mystery she’s going to unravel with Jake in the afternoon. She suppresses a sigh, resolves to look into things after school, and dials a number into the phone.

GM: Agnes answers, “Good morning, Ms. Bauman. Did Jacob Zimmers relay my messages?”

Hazel: “He did, Mrs. Sperle. Thank you for accommodating my lateness with Mrs. LeBaron.” Mom has always told her to thank people who do things for her. She doesn’t need to judge whether it’s appropriate or not: better to err with thanks than no thanks.

GM: There is a slight pause and a hint of thawing ice in her voice. “You’re welcome. But you should thank Vice Principal Schoening. I was merely following his instructions.”

Hazel: “I see.” Well, that won’t be much fun explaining to Uncle Leo, but she made her own bed. “In any case, you have my apologies if it caused you any personal inconvenience.”

GM: “Apology accepted, Ms. Bauman,” the elderly secretary says with further glacial melting. “Please do remember to clock in and out. I manually adjusted your card for yesterday, but let’s not make that a habit. Is there anything else I can do for you though?”

Hazel: “Let’s not. I don’t believe so right now, but I know who to call.”

GM: “Yes, you do,” she says with a hint of satisfaction.

Hazel: “Have a good day, Mrs. Sperle,” Hazel wishes before hanging up. That was… fairly painless. Mom has taught her how to do apologies too, and it’s usually pretty formulaic.

She powers on the desktop computer, clocks in, and checks her faculty email account. She doubts many students or staff have much to send her this early, but she did shoot Murff an email last night asking if there’s a secure place where faculty members can store their things. She’s concerned hers may get stolen just leaving them behind the library desk.

GM: Perhaps to Hazel’s surprise, she has four emails.

Hazel: The woman who prefers dealing with people over computers isn’t complaining.

GM: The first is just the automated Outlook message indicating her account has been activated.

outlook97.gif

Hazel: Delete.

GM: The second is… from herself. ‘Sent’ yesterday morning almost immediately after her account activation. There is no subject. The message is brief. Brief, but potentially disturbing.

You are being observed. Trust no one. If you want to know more, go to the Swiner, take the third booth from the door, and tape a newspaper clipped letter ‘Y’ to the underside of the table. DO NOT USE COLOR.
Discretely,
A Concerned Citizen


Hazel: Hazel stares at the screen. She’s being observed. That confirms a fear she already has. Who would send this? Who would know or care? Her parents? Maybe Uncle Leo? She doubts it’s from either of her parents, and somehow it doesn’t feel like Leo either. Not trusting anyone is good advice. She’ll start with the person(s?) responsible for sending her this mystery email, telling her where to meet them.

She stares at the screen. She removes her glasses, observes the black-lettered text fade into a hazy blur. Puts them back on. Observes them swim into focus. Off. On. Off. On. In. Out. In. Out. The email’s text swims, twists, and curls inwards, then outwards, spelling out some real answers…

Is the sender sincere in their desire to help me?

The text blurs and swims.

YES

So it’s not a trap. That doesn’t mean the sender’s interest is benign, but likely that attending the meeting will pose no immediate risk to her safety. She squints again. The text writhes and warps, twisting into garble with meanings as open to interpretation as an inkblot test.

Is there a direct connection between the email’s sender and the force behind Mrs. Griswold’s journal—or which visited me the night before last?

NO

Likely ROSEWATER-related, then. She doesn’t know for sure, but who else but the government has the means and motive to survey her? Further worry creases her thoughts. If they saw her handling that second tape… but that’s being paranoid, isn’t it? Easier to survey her at school than at her dad’s house? She can’t see any signs she’s being watched in the library either. Viewing the disc tucked in her cardigan pocket will have to wait, then—at least until she’s met her mysterious contact. Maybe they will have information on how to evade whoever is surveying her. Of course, why would they part with that knowledge? How does it benefit them to tell her any of this? A mental sigh. Her vision is swimming, eyes pounding.

Will my planned stratagem to evade my nocturnal visitor continue to be effectual—at least for the short-term?

YES

Hazel breathes a sigh of relief. It looks like she’ll be spending the night at Mom’s, then, if she can. She’ll need an excuse. If that falls through… well, Dad probably won’t say no again. And if it really comes down to it, she can rent a room at the Ghost Elk Lodge. The text finally splinters apart into a kaleidoscope of black blots against white, scattering over Hazel’s vision like sand tossed against her glasses. She blinks rapidly, lifting her them back over her eyes as if to shield her sight. That’s always… tiring. No power without price, as her uncle said. With that grim acknowledgement, she moves to check the remainder of her emails. The screen still makes her head hurt a bit.

GM: Ones and zeros. An infinite universe built by a single dichotomy. Ones and zeros.

She reads the next email.

Sender: Lance McDermott
Time: 8:13 am, Tuesday, October 7th, 1998
Subject: You’re back!?

Hazel: Oh god.

Hazel takes more than a few slow, calming breaths to smother the panic attack before it hits.

GM: Content: _Hazel, I heard the morning announcements about you being back in town and as our new librarian. I couldn’t believe it, but then I saw your name on the faculty email list. How long have you been back? I would love to catch up. Are you free anytime this week? Maybe we can grab a cup at the Wigwam, or catch lunch together. If you need help moving into your new place, I’d love to help. Congrats on the new job!

Yours,
Lance

PS: I teach Agricultural Science. One of my classes is scheduled to come by the library today, so I’ll see you soon! _

Hazel: Hazel stares the screen. Stares.

Aaaaaaaaggghhh!!!

Lance is… a TEACHER at WFHS? A teacher. Her ex-boyfriend, now her co-worker. Sending her emails. Asking about lunch. It’s… she’s at a loss for words. Except that one word she can fall back on for so many occasions. Awkward.

He’s being… friendly to her. Doesn’t he remember how they broke up? The circumstances that led to that? How much she thought he wasn’t applying himself, what a ‘lowly’ field agricultural science was? The raging hard-on of hate his dad held towards her? They split up. That was the end. Hazel didn’t wish anything ill on him, they just recognized they weren’t compatible for one another and went their separate ways. So why is he sending her emails!? It’s… she’s not going to call him weird, because what he’s doing seems only polite, especially now that they’re colleagues, but…

Aaaaaaaagh!

Hazel buries her face in her hands. It’s too strange. They went their separate ways. Oh, and that’s all before… One of my classes is scheduled to come by the library today, so I’ll see you soon! No, she’s not going to see him today. Because the Spooks, directly or indirectly, got somebody to beat the living shit out of him. Hazel slumps forward as if her hands’ cover is insufficient and sprawls her arms and face over the desk.

She doesn’t know how she’s supposed to feel about this. She doesn’t want anything bad to happen to Lance, no more than she’d want something bad to happen to anyone. Buttressed by that realization, she becomes conscious of her position over the desk. She sits up and brushes her disheveled hair back over her shoulders. I have the emotional maturity of a thirteen-year-old, reacting like this to a simple email. But she was never like other thirteen-year-olds. She’s just… she just doesn’t know how she’s supposed to react. For a moment, she no longer feels awkward, but profoundly alone. Like the world is contained inside a house she’s locked out from, and can’t do anything more than catch fragmented peeks through the window. How can people send such emails like nothing has happened?

Another realization abruptly stabs through her consciousness like an ice pick through an eye socket._Are you seriously having a pity party for yourself when Lance got all but beaten to death? _ No. She doesn’t want to do that. She just… how is she supposed to respond to this, beyond hoping he doesn’t die? What is the right and proper thing to do? She wants to do that, whatever that is.

Hazel looks over the computer screen again. Oh. The email is dated yesterday. She missed that. Missed seeing Lance too. The added awkwardness is a drop in the barrel at this point. Maybe Mom, Dad, or both can explain all this, she grumbles. How I can… do whatever’s right for Lance in this situation. That’s all I want to do. What’s right. Without self-moping if that’s inappropriate. She sighs and gives the final email a check. Murff’s or someone else’s?

GM: Sender: Layne Tuttle
Time: 3:45 pm, Tuesday, October 7th, 1998
Subject: Thanks!
Content: Thanks!

Hazel: Oh. That… promises to be better. Hazel reads it over. Then she realizes the message is the same as the subject. Well, you’re welcome. Hazel wonders if it would be rude not to reply, then sends back an email with those exact words. Sans the ‘well.’

Next is tracing the people who hacked her email account. Her… reading might have told her they aren’t seeking to do her active and present harm, but she’s not walking into this without doing her homework. What happened to her email wasn’t sorcery. Someone hacked it and had her send herself an email, so as to avoid using an address of their own.

Hazel slowly smiles. I don’t get people. But I do get computers. The immediate, common sense precaution here would be to change one’s email password. Hazel doesn’t do that. She’s stored nothing of value on the account, and if they get in a second time, her odds of tracking them are so much the better.

Of course, tracing a second hacking is her backup plan. Hazel starts by calling the tech support line of the company that provides WFHS’s internet. “Hi, I’d like to get a list of the IP addresses that have accessed my email account. It’s…” Now, these people probably weren’t so green as to actually broadcast their own IP address. Searching that, she assumes, should unsurprisingly turn up a proxy server. But no matter their intent, individuals hiding their identity in such a way always leave some trail of digital breadcrumbs.

The technical part of tracking a user down is easy. Hazel simply needs to analyze the proxy server logs, find the connection request to the target server and look at the source IP address. While this is technically simple, gaining access to the proxy server logs is easier said than done. Ideally, Hazel will bump up against a company that was unwittingly running the proxy server and is eager to eradicate it quickly from its network. In that situation, she’ll probably be redirected to their corporate lawyer, who likely won’t be eager to share information with her that could later be used as evidence that the company was negligent or even complicit in any attack launched through the proxy. Normally, it takes the involvement of law enforcement and a court order to gain access to proxy server logs. Luckily for Hazel, her parents work in law enforcement and corporate law. And if she doesn’t want to involve them, she can always just break into the company’s servers.

A blooded attacker will use multiple proxy servers to hide their true location, so Hazel will probably need to repeat this process multiple times to gain access to the true IP address. Unfortunately for them, she is nothing if not persistent.

GM: Yet, for all Hazel’s digital acumen and sheer doggedness, she finds zero breadcrumbs. Perhaps like Hanzel and Gretel, the crows ate them all up, every last morsel, so thoroughly that Hazel finds no trace. Or, perhaps there are no breadcrumbs because there never were any—which would mean that the email was physically created and sent from her computer yesterday morning—when she was huddled under her desk, just a few feet away.

Hazel: Another phone call confirms that no IP addresses have accessed her email account except the school’s. Hazel can’t stop from shivering a bit at the thought of someone being there in the room, with her, right when she was a panicking mess. So someone with access to the school and its library, able to enter unseen or without arousing suspicion. Leo all along? He did want to meet her after school today, after all. They never decided where. And in all frankness, it doesn’t strike Hazel as a good idea, simply talking about what happened to Layne in the Chimera where anyone could be present without knowledge. She’s already had pot go missing from her backpack, after all.

Yes, Leo seems probable. Hazel can’t say for certain, but it’s the simplest explanation. Well, Occam, if I cut myself on your razor, I’m going to be ticked. If it’s Leo, she’ll have to lecture him on the proper way how to hack an email account. He should have hacked it from a remote computer too. Hazel could have dug up the IP address and gone off on a wild goose chase, assuming the perpetrator wasn’t someone who worked at the high school. She’d have been none the wiser they had physical access to her computer. She can’t think of any direct way to correlate IP addresses to specific sent emails—the closest she could approximate is simple timestamps for the address next to the time marked on the email.

GM: But no, Hazel considers, that can’t be it. Yes, she was having a panic attack and her senses were… preoccupied. But she’s pretty sure, really sure that she would have noticed someone creeping up a few feet away from her and using her computer. Or maybe that’s just what she wants to believe—that her anxiety and panic attacks aren’t that debilitating. That her privacy, her possessions can’t be so easily violated.

Hazel: Hazel sighs and rubs her temple. Well, she could follow up on this. Getting a fingerprint off the keyboard would be tricky, given how many times she’s since touched the keys with her own fingers. She’d also need a set of Leo’s prints to compare to. But why go to such effort to confirm who the sender was? She’ll find out for sure this afternoon, one way or another.

Actually, she frowns, there’s other thing she can do. It seems like it’d be polite to apologize for being late to work, and a prompt one is better than being late twice. She picks up the phone and dials her uncle’s number.

GM: Hazel hears the ‘click’ as the call is rerouted. “Good morning, this is Vice Principal Schoening,” her uncle answers. Hazel can’t recall a time she’s ever spoken to Uncle Leo on the phone before, and the effect is odd, since much of the man’s intensity seems lost in translation.

Hazel: “Hello, Vice Principal Schoening. This is Ms. Bauman,” she answers. Well, he still seems formal enough over the phone, and that’s something she can relate to.

GM: “Ms. Bauman, what can I do for you?”

Hazel: “By all accounts you have already done something, Vice Principal. Mrs. Sperle informed me that you were responsible for accommodating my lateness with Mrs. LeBaron’s class. You have my thanks for doing so, as well as my apologies for its necessity. My tardiness was due to circumstances within my control that I will endeavor not to repeat.”

That apology, too, was mentally drafted by Hazel in advance, bearing in mind the rules from that book on social interaction Mom gave her for an earlier birthday. If you’re wrong about something, admit it quickly and emphatically.

GM: “Your trespass is forgiven,” her uncle answers. “Such incidents often occur—though they are not the state of affairs to which we strive.” Even over the phone, there is a precise, potent force behind the man’s words—but it’s veiled, like a fire whose heat you can feel but whose flames you cannot see.

Hazel: “There is also another matter concerning Ms. Tuttle’s requested transference to work as an assistant librarian. Is your office after school hours an acceptable time and location to discuss such, or do you already hold prior commitments?” Hazel pauses, gauging her uncle’s reaction. She’s still a bit new to subterfuge of this sort, but wanting to discuss such a matter with him should be consistent with what any potential eavesdroppers picked up.

GM: “I have made a commitment to you, Ms. Bauman, and I will not break it lightly. Please meet me in my office at 3:59 pm, and we will discuss Ms. Tuttle’s situation.”

Hazel: “Very good, Vice Principal. I will see you then.”

GM: “Until then–,” he adds, “–Farewell.”

Hazel: “I shall endeavor to so fare.” Hazel hangs up. Her gaze then sweeps across the rows of waiting, un-catalogued books. Well, time to do the job he hired her to do.

Hazel: The next few hours pass uneventfully. Hazel and Jake catalog more books, another figurative drop in the vast, vast bucket. Hazel contemplates how she needs to find a more labor-intensive way of going about this—which doesn’t involve her personal labor. Nevertheless, she thanks her ‘assistant’ for his help when he is done, stating that twice the hands is half the work.

When second period rolls around, Hazel takes an early lunch break and snarfs down the extra food she packed, not having had a chance to eat a real breakfast this morning. She then picks up the phone and calls her mother again. Beyond wanting to catch up, she now has a very pressing reason to want that dinner. The Sweeney house is not a safe place to spend the night, at least in the short term. She could go to her dad’s house again, but she’d rather maintain an unpredictable schedule. Granted, she admits, someone who did their homework on her and knew she spent last night at her dad’s could probably guess she wants to spend tonight at her mom’s, but it’s a better defense than nothing.

GM: Her mother picks up on the first ring. “Hazel! Are you all right, dear?!”

Hazel: “Mom? Yeah, I’m just fine, why do you ask?” That was… fast. She honestly hadn’t been expecting the call to go through.

GM: “Well you weren’t home last night when I stopped by, and then Harvey told me about Lance.” Harvey. Not ‘your father’. Not anymore. Not to Lydia at least.

Hazel: “Oh. Yes. I spent the night at Dad’s house.” Hazel doesn’t stress the name. But she does say it. “I am okay though, Mom. I wasn’t there for any of it. Just the aftermath. We aren’t certain who did it.”

GM: The line goes so quiet that Hazel has to check to make sure they weren’t disconnected. She hears a clink of ice and the sound of drinking in the background. “What do you mean you spent the night at his house?” Her mother’s tone is tight like piano wire.

Hazel: “I mean that I went to his place of residence last night, deliberately fell asleep in one of the bedrooms, and left this morning to go to work. The colloquial term for doing so is ‘spending the night,’” Hazel answers, all but twerking the piano wire.

GM: Hazel can almost hear her mother pinching the bridge of her nose, a gesture she does when she’s too angry for words.

Hazel: Hazel isn’t much of a manipulator. But is her mom… jealous? Would she see having her over tonight as ‘revenge’, or at least some kind of validation? That could be the opening she needs. She can’t sleep in the damn Sweeney house, not with whatever’s after her.

GM: After a groan and what sounds like paper tearing followed by a splash and fizzing in the background, Lydia replies in a cool instructive tone, “Hazel, we have talked about this. Unless you are speaking to someone very young, intellectually impaired, or a non-fluent speaker, you do not provide a definition when someone asks ‘what do you mean by this or that?’—instead they are asking ‘why’? And we have also talked about you staying overnight with Harvey. So why did you do so—and heavens help me, child, do not say ‘to sleep’?”

Hazel: “Actually, Mom, I was not doing so to be instructive, but to be sarcastic,” Hazel explains in a helpful tone. “You also guessed that I was going to say ‘to sleep’, so I suppose it’s less humorous if I say that now.”

GM: There’s another sound of drinking followed by a sharp intake of breath.

Hazel: “I hope that’s… non-alcoholic?” There’s a tinge of concern to Hazel’s words.

GM: “Humor, dear, can be an effective means of deescalation—sarcasm usually has the opposite effect.”

Hazel: “We all have our temptations and vices.”

GM: “Alka-seltzer, Hazel,” her mother responds. “And you’re deflecting, dear.”

Hazel: “I was side-tracked. But I spent the night there because I had a severe panic attack in my bedroom—one of the ones that makes me black out—and I didn’t feel like going to sleep there. I still don’t.”

GM: “Hazel, we’ve talked about that too. Do you remember what Dr. Reiter said about how avoidance only increases the likelihood and severity of future anxiety attacks? The only way to conquer your fears is to face them. It is perfectly normal for very young children to have nightmares and wish to sleep with their parents. But you are a physically, occupationally, and intellectually full-grown woman. You should know better. And he should too.”

Hazel: Damn it. That’s not the direction she’d wanted this conversion to go. She’d rather not paint a potential target on her dad’s house by staying there two nights in a row, but she can’t sleep in the Sweeney house, not with whatever’s after her. It’s all the more ironic that she normally would agree with her mother, too, about the efficacy of exposure therapy. She’s initially not quite sure how to turn this around.

“Exposure therapy works best in incremental doses. I avoided my bedroom when I returned home last night. When I return home this afternoon, I intend to venture inside it, and to work my way up from there.”

GM: Another pause. Another sip. “Okay, Hazel, that may explain why you didn’t stay in your own home, or at least bedroom, but not why you spent the night at Harvey’s.” She adds, “Or it explains it, but not justifies it.”

Hazel: “Under normal circumstances it would have been a dilemma deciding which of you to ask. Or at least a coin toss. I usually resort to flipping a coin or employing some other chance-based deciding mechanism whenever I have to pick between the two of you for anything.”

GM: “Perhaps flipping the coin is just another form of avoidance, Hazel. A hobgoblin of the mind. But go on. I am listening.”

Hazel: “I think instead, Mom, it reflects the fact that you are both equally important to me. I am unable to personally make such a decision, so I absolve myself of the necessity to do so.”

GM: There’s a big gulp of the fizzing alka-seltzer water. “So are you telling me you flipped a coin, Hazel, or are you just leading me to draw that false conclusion?”

Hazel: “Oh no, a coin toss would have been entirely superfluous in that instance. Dad was there when I woke up from the attack, so it was my natural impulse to ask him. I felt guilty about it afterwards all the same. But after you were forced to cancel our dinner plans, it appeared that such guilt was unwarranted.”

GM: There’s a click in Lydia’s throat that all but spells out ‘checkmate.’ “Yes, about that, I’m very sorry, Hazel. Something came up last minute, something very, very important. Something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about. But in person.”

Hazel: Hazel’s tone immediately softens. “It happens, Mom. It wasn’t like that was my graduation or anything. I’ll have more first days at other jobs.”

GM: A slight brightening. “Yes, yes, you will, dear. Better ones too, I’m sure. Would you like to have dinner tonight?”

Hazel: Hazel is about to quickly change the topic before her mother kindly spares her the necessity of doing so. “I’d love to, Mom,” she smiles.

GM: “Wonderful. We can even order room service, if you’d like to avoi-, skip the lounge.”

Hazel: “Yes,” Hazel instinctively answers.

GM: “But you have to sleep back in your own place,” her mom adds quickly. “Maybe not the bed, but another room or a couch at least.”

Hazel: No Mom, I actually do not have to. I’ll spend my own damn money on a hotel room if you or Dad aren’t willing to put me up, because I’m not getting… well, whatever in fuck’s name an evil eye that appears at night in people’s bedrooms does to them.

Hazel does, however, moderate her tone as she replies, “Graduated increments, Mom. I avoided sleeping in the house at all yesterday. Tonight I’ll take an afternoon nap there and spend the night somewhere else. Tomorrow I’ll sleep in one of the house’s other bedrooms.”

“I’ll spend tonight at Dad’s again if I have to. Or pay for my own room at the Lodge, it’ll set me back, but it’s not as if I spend my money on many things. All the same, I hate ‘picking favorites’, and I’d feel even better if we could still have dinner together.” Hazel’s tone is affectionate, but there is a steel spine of ‘my mind is made up, it’s not changing, and you know it won’t’ backing it up.

GM: Another clink, another sip, another click. “I will pay for your room—a separate room here at the hotel tonight. But only for tonight, dear.”

Hazel: “That sounds equitable, Mom. Thank you for the pizza last night, as well. Saves me the necessity to make lunch and/or dinner for a little while.”

GM: “You’re welcome, dear. I hope you find the second gift even more useful.”

Hazel: “The second gift?” It takes her a moment to connect the mental dots. “Oh, that’s right. I hope so too.”

GM: “Is 7 o’clock an all right time to pick you up? From your house?”

Hazel: Hazel thinks for a moment. She’s not sure how long business at the Swiner is going to take. “I’m actually not sure what time I’ll be getting off today. Why don’t I just bike over to the hotel and meet you there?” Hazel doesn’t like the thought of talking to the hotel staff, but sees few ways around it.

GM: “If you’re sure, dear. I’ll let the staff know, in case you arrive before I do. Please be careful on the roads.”

Hazel: “I will, Mom. I got a headlight installed on my bike before I moved back.”

GM: “I’m so relieved to hear.” Another pause. “You know, Hazel, I think you’d fit right in amongst all the cyclists in Europe. Hardly anyone drives cars.”

Hazel: “That does make sense. They are a great deal more environmentally conscientious than we are, and distances simply aren’t as long.”

GM: “Yes, and far more civilized than some communities I know,” her mom adds half-jokingly—but only half. “I love you, dear,” she adds with a smile that is almost visible.

Hazel: Lydia knows better than to argue with Hazel when her mind is well and truly made up. The same is true in vice versa. “I love you too, Mom,” Hazel smiles back.

GM: “Ok, I need to get going here, but I’ll see you tonight,” her mom says in farewell.

Hazel: “You will. See you later.”

Hazel: Hazel looks back up at the clock. Talking with mom didn’t take too long. In between bites of an almond butter sandwich (it doesn’t matter if it’s more expensive than peanut butter when you don’t pay for it), she carefully re-opens her predecessor’s journal. There is further knowledge contained within its pages. Knowledge that she has to know, no matter its cost.

GM: Page eight begins with a line Hazel knows all-too well.

The roads have a will of their own.

Strangely enough, two score or more pages that follow actually resemble journal entries with dates, times, and locations. Pressed for time, Hazel reads over what she can. By the time the second period’s ending bell rings, Hazel knows that Mrs. Griswold had been tracking, or at least logging, the comings and goings of certain trucking companies in and around Witiko Falls. Most of the entries seem rather plain, even containing mundane information like the weather, the activities of neighbors, and what she had recently eaten. However, there are occasional deviations from this normalcy such as complex mathematical equations or computations about certain deliveries or their drivers, many of whom are given what Hazel can only assume are code-names. Further complicating the matter is the fact that the entries have a fair bit of trucker jargon that the non-driving librarian cannot ‘translate’.

Hazel: Hazel eventually infers that Mrs. Griswold’s primary interest in the truckers was what they were delivering. What they were delivering, and why it would interest Mrs. Griswold, are questions that remain unanswered. That, at least, is nothing new to the current librarian as she snaps the book closed.

GM: Too many questions. They surround her. The book in her hands, the bleach-scrubbed blood beneath her feet, the email on her computer, and more. Yet, as Hazel contemplates her seemingly expanding universe of mysteries, she notes that she has received two more emails during her ‘lunch break.’

The first is from Murff. Replying to her email, her twice-former Language Arts teacher lets her know that the teacher lounges have lockers for faculty to hang up coats and lock up their possessions. He guesses that she’s been assigned to Lounge A—and suggests that even if she’s not, she should use it “lest the staff assigned to lounge B corrupt you with their hard science witchcraft.” Plus, he adds, that way they get to hang out and engage in water-cooler gossip.

Hazel: Hazel smiles at the email and shoots off a reply thanking her former teacher for the warning (and his answer).

GM: The second is a recent delivery from Agnes. She informs Hazel that Mrs. LeBaron will not be accompanying her class to the library due to an “incident.” Consequently, Hazel will be in charge of managing the class and helping each student locate an appropriate book to help them begin their term project on an assigned ancient civilization. Once all the students have their book, Hazel is to help answer any questions they have, but otherwise let them begin reading.

Hazel: She groans at the prospect of actually running the class. She’d have preferred to just help the students find books. Oh well. That shouldn’t be too hands on, should it?

Poetic justice if nothing else, I guess, after I was late.

Brook, Hazel: Paper-Cut Corkscrew


Hazel: Hazel steps out from behind her desk as Mrs. LeBaron’s class files into the library. However many students there are, it’s too many. She really doesn’t want to do this without another teacher to help manage things, but at least she had time to mentally prepare what she’s about to say. She forces a smile as she calls out to the class,

“Hi everyone, welcome to the library. A lot of you probably didn’t listen to the intercom announcements yesterday, and those of you who did probably don’t remember, so my name is Ms. Bauman, and I am the new librarian. I’m Undersheriff Bauman’s daughter, I graduated from high school here five years ago, and I still remember how boring I found listening to teachers talk about themselves. So on a more instructional-related note, I will be responsible for helping you locate appropriate books to begin your term projects on ancient civilizations. Once you find a book, please take a seat somewhere and begin reading. I will be available to answer questions and provide any other requested assistance once everyone has found their books. Are there any questions before we begin doing so?”

GM: Mrs. LeBaron’s class of just barely sophomores is a far cry from Murff’s honors class full of seniors looking up college applications. The kids remind Hazel of a sprawling lump of half-cooled wax. They possess the gangly lankiness and awkwardness of just-hatching butterflies who have yet to grow accustomed to their nascent pubescent bodies. They’re all elbows, acne, raging hormones, and hypomania.

Hazel: The hydra’s last head was immortal. Armed with her relatively friendly words for a shield, Hazel readies herself for battle.

GM: A kid passes gas, prompting another to push him, which causes several others to bump, jostle, and yell. Others walk away or jump onto the computers, while a few rock their heads to the beat of half-concealed headphones pumping out Kurt Corbain or J-Lo.

Hazel: “Headphones OUT, hands OFF anything but books, and keep your feet RIGHT HERE,” Hazel sharply calls out, the smile gone in an instant.

GM: For all their bluster and bluff, the sophomores are still just kids. After a few fall in line, the herd mentality takes over. There’s some grumbling, but they stow their equipment, come back, stop pushing, and maybe even smell less obnoxious.

Hazel: The smile just as swiftly returns as Hazel’s tone shifts from sharp to sweet. The Beast is magnanimous in her victories, after all. “No questions, then. Now if you’ll all follow me, the pertinent books are this way…”

It’s the scent of their fear, Hazel contemplates in response to their seemingly improved odor. I love the smell of cowed adolescents in the morning.

GM: The young teens start pulling out slips of paper with their assigned civilization or nation printed on it. Some wait their turn, others hand their slips to the librarian, and others ask where this or that section might be.

Hazel: “One at a time, everyone,” Hazel calls. “Anyone who I’m not currently helping, please take a look at the following shelves. I will check in with each of you as I am able. You can hold onto the slips. I’m not going to have any idea who those belong to when I’m being handed a dozen. Now, let’s start with…”

True to her word, Hazel moves among the teeming throng of adolescents, endeavoring to help each one find a pertinent book—or at least stay on task and looking rather than goofing off. She starts with the simplest requests and those books she can best guess the locations of. A brief mental thanks is spared to her predecessor for laying out the method to her organizational madness.

Brook: Brook can still feel the stick of blood on his right hand, even the sweat from holding hands and the wash and disinfect wasn’t enough. It took time for it to sink into your skin, to cement what you did in your bones. Least that’s how he saw it, of course there was an explanation he didn’t much care for. Walking through the doors into the Chimera breaks that train of thought, and he remembers back to where he asked Daniel to stab into the dart board. Iceland and the north there. Just… Norsemen. That’s what he picked.

When he walks in, everyone seems a lot more docile than how he left them, from Lord of the Flies to 1984. Weird, but welcome. His jeans are still blotched with blood, so he doesn’t look exactly great for the new librarian, but he stands off to the side waiting for the line to thin out so he can have his turn up at the front. He doesn’t exactly feel like going and talking to his teacher just yet either, her screaming and the fainting at blood. Better to give her time.

GM: Daniel slips away from the crowd and hands his friend a slip of paper. “Man, LeBaron was still all kinds of whack when she came back. Glad to see Principal Gorzak didn’t crucify you.” He’s only half-joking. As Brook looks around, he notices that Mrs. LeBaron is nowhere to be seen—perhaps to his relief.

Brook: Brook looks down at the paper and mutters, “Sweet,” under his breath, wondering if Dan is going to pull something as he checks his civilization. Though… hearing their teacher is still fucked up isn’t a good sign. “Whack? Like, still screaming for that guy’s head? And of course she didn’t, it was an accident. One I fixed. Magic hands. But what about LeBaron? I don’t see her anywhere. She waiting for me in the book stacks with a knife or something?”

GM: As Brook flips over the sheet, Daniel adds, “You said Ireland, right? It wasn’t on the list, so I tried to get the closest I could. Or well, what Abby Merkle said was close.” The small strip of paper has a single word: Picts. Daniel shrugs. “As for LeBaron, hell no, she wasn’t screaming bloody murder. Instead, she was just skittish as a whitetail on the second day of hunting season.”

Brook: Danny Littlecunt, I will destroy you. Brook can almost feel the boredom seep into him. Picts were like—some kind of tattoo people? Wait, that might be… okay. Still, he rolls his eyes and shakes his head, shoving the paper in his back pocket. “Iceland, I said. Vikings. You know, Thor, Baldr, and… Loki getting his ass reamed by a horse and giving birth to his dad’s mutant-legged horse.”

LeBaron is left off to the wayside, it seems she really hates this guy she screamed about. Maybe that’s a better use of his time in the library. Check out a few books on Picts and take them to read overnight, and research that name while he’s here.

GM: “Shit, Brooks, I’m sorry,” the mohawk-haired youth says.

Meanwhile, Hazel references the diary’s annotated maps and soon finds the task all too easy. Most students simply hand her their slips and take whatever she gives them, either too lazy, ignorant, or trusting to argue or ask questions. But as the herd thins, Hazel clearly spots a pair of native boys at the back of the line. She hears one bragging about having “magic hands” while the other goes on about a female authority figure freaking out.

Hazel: After decapitating and cauterizing the hydra’s newest crop of heads, Hazel approaches the duo and looks between them. “I see the two of you are having a productive discussion about school assignments. Remind me what books I gave you?”

GM: Daniel looks at Brook, then turns. “Uh, we were waiting.”

Hazel: “Waiting to do something productive. Let’s start now. What civilizations have you been assigned?” Oh, please don’t have one. I can have you catalog books for the rest of the period.

GM: Daniel reaches into his pocket and hands the librarian a slip. It reads: Vril. The mohawk kid shrugs. “Is it like Chinese?”

Brook: Brook jumps at the sudden introduction of… this has to be the new librarian. She looks pretty confident despite what happened to her predecessor. Fishing his own slip out, he looks over at Daniel and sighs a bit at his own mixed up pick. “You want to switch, then? You like punky tattoos and shi-… stuff.”

GM: “No way, man, because my partner is Veronica Pleats,” he grins.

Brook: Brook blinks. He didn’t even know there were partners. “Dammit, Daniel.”

GM: “Yeah, you got Horse-Face,” Daniel shoots back, then turns back to Hazel. “So is it Chinese or like Italian?”

Hazel: Hazel, however, swiftly cuts off the sophomores’ chatter. She isn’t sure if the kid is trying to pull one over her with a civilization that had its origins in a science fiction book, but she doesn’t care either. Anything that keeps his hands full and his mouth closed. “Vril. Great. You can start with The Power of the Coming Race, or Morning of the Magicians. They are technically English, as that was the nationality of the author who dreamed them up in the 19th century. You can find the pertinent books over there.” Hazel gives the boy directions and an expectant look for him to be off.

GM: “Does either one have a horse rape a guy? He’s into that,” Daniel says, nodding his head to Brook.

Hazel: Hazel happily seizes upon the convenient pretext and writes out a detention slip for tomorrow after school with a smile. “I’ll see you then.” More hands is lighter work.

GM: “For what?!” the shorter kids complains. “I was being serious.”

Hazel: “So am I. Please retrieve your books and begin reading.”

GM: He shoots her a look and takes the slip. “Yeah, screw that, I’ll get my ass paddled by the principal.”

Hazel: “I am certain she will be happy to impress the religious values of the Ursulines of the Agonizing Heart of Jesus upon another eager postulant,” Hazel replies, unfazed. Her expectant look for the boy to retrieve his books has not diminished.

GM: Daniel skulks off, but not before he picks up Pauwel’s and Jacques Bergier’s book.

Hazel: Hazel finally turns to regard the more quiet Brooks. “And what might your civilization be?”

Brook: Brook actually… doesn’t mind getting Leanne as his partner, zoning out just a little, imagining her coming to the radio station to study. It’d be… something. Maybe he could… nah. He’s jostled out of the thought by the word ‘rape’, suddenly realizing Danny is being a fucking moron again. Leaving his bigger friend’s eyes a bit wide and his mouth bitten shut as the accusation is pointed out.

Danny, your name is well earned. You little CUNT.

Too late to fix Danny’s damned mouth, he took the chance to look over at the teacher. She’s pretty! Older girls always look a lot more comfortable in their own skin. Actually… she’s a little familiar. Years and years ago, he remembers some kind of strawberry social or something with his mom. She looks a tiny bit older, but–

Then she turns to him, and he gets his first full on look, giving her a bit of a focused confused look. “Hazel Bauman? Undersheriff Bauman’s daughter?”

Hazel: “Yes, that is I,” Hazel replies, mildly taken aback. “I mentioned who my father was in my introduction to the class, though not my full name.”

Brook: Brook’s face lights up just a little, standing up a bit straight. He looks 100% different, he wonders if she’d even remember some kid. “I wasn’t here for that, I was walking someone to the nurse. I’m Brook Barnes, Mary Madcatcher’s son. I thought you moved away?”

Hazel: Hazel briefly looks across the library. All of the other students have been helped and are quietly reading. “I did, to attend college in Spokane. I moved back when my father and uncle called with a job offer to work as the new librarian.”

She isn’t sure what to say at this point. Making small talk isn’t as easy as following the ‘authoritarian librarian’ script. “I believe I’ve seen your mother a few times. The head park ranger?”

Brook: Brook is worried a bit about how he’s coming off, the woman seems a little distant to him. He’s still not going to ruin his record of carrying a conversation. “She still is. And I’m the other half of the equation now. I’m in the final stages of becoming a junior park ranger, and I already do the night shift. I took over the radio station as well. I’m glad you’re back, though. I kinda regretted being too young to get to know you way back when.”

Hazel: “My congratulations,” Hazel replies by rote upon hearing of the boy’s accomplishments. That’s the thing you’re supposed to do. She’s not sure what to say to his professed regret and thinks for a moment. “I’m certain your mom is both proud of and thankful for the chance to work alongside her son. I know that I enjoy helping my dad to examine crime scenes. Which I am actually not supposed to do without a business license to work as a private investigator. But it’s very easy to become a private investigator in Idaho. All you need is a simple business license.” That’s… Hazel’s not exactly sure what sort of opening that provides for him to respond to. But talking is better than not talking, right?

Brook: Hearing the end of her statement, he knows that’s he’s in. When people are difficult to talk to, have them talk about themselves, right? “Well that’s just for if you want people to hire you to do it, right? Not just do it yourself? Sounds like it wouldn’t stop you either way. Do you still do that kind of thing? Witiko Falls is… well, crawling with that kind of mojo.”

Hazel: The mention of the town’s occult phenomena initially raises Hazel’s hackles as she recalls her recent email. You are being observed. Trust no one. ROSEWATER, with its evident interest in the paranormal. Is the boy in on it? Well, if they wanted to get her on anything, she imagines they’d employ greater subtlety than having someone just ask her about it… and it’s not as if they need pretext to nab her. They can just send more Spooks to drag her into a black van if they think she’s a problem. Like that other poor boy was. They looked the other way for Mrs. Griswold. Her parents… she hopes they’d find out and give the government hell. And…

Her mind is wandering.

You are being observed.

Hazel manages a smile back. “I’m an avowed skeptic. The ‘mojo’ amounts to pseudoscience and stories that grow in the retelling.”

Brook: Red bells ring, causing Brooks to watch like a hawk as Hazel’s mind spins in circles. That’s more than a little bullshit. Maybe the time away from the Falls made her forget. Or maybe she has her head in the dirt like a real local, despite her absence. Like a real local, she takes too long to answer his questions.

“I deal with it for a living, Ms. Bauman. The amount of idiot tourists I’ve tracked through the woods chasing the happenings around here? Says something. Not talking about the wolf in the woods doesn’t mean that wolf doesn’t know where you’re hiding. You gotta be proactive.”

Maybe this isn’t the best place to be talking about this kind of thing, but he has that name on him, and with a cop’s daughter attending to him it’s a good chance. “I’m an insomniac, I don’t sleep at night, so I run the Witiko Falls radio station. I have time. I’ll check out some books on Picts—but! I want ask you if you know a name, first. If that’s okay with you.”

Hazel: Hazel subconsciously tenses as Brook doesn’t let up on the paranormal talk. “Well, wolves are not precisely my specialty. My degree was in English. So if I saw one, I would probably run away. But answering student questions is what I am here for.”

‘I would run away’ might be laying it on a little thick. But that’s okay. If the government’s watching, they know she’s seen a few kooky things. Know, and hopefully anticipate she’d want to bury them deep, forget all about them, keep her head down. That’s the expected behavior pattern of someone who’s seen too much and doesn’t want to see any more.

Brook: Listening, Brook wants to shake his head a little at her words, but he keeps a mostly even face. “Well, the last thing you do is run from a predator. It tells them you’re a target.” Brook has thought about daisypiss Spooks a lot, too. Sometimes he would scare himself into taking warning shots into the woods at night, just hoping he would hit one of their vans or cameras. Something. Of course he was scared of them, but it wasn’t going to stop him. If they were so worried about people being weird and having strange interests, they’d stop things like social studies classes studying ancient chants and ancient civilization topics be from works of fiction.

“Ervil. The teacher saw blood, passed out, and woke up screaming she’d kill him and ’every last one of them’,” he says, showing her the blood smears and splatters on his clothes.

Hazel: Hazel blinks at that. Well. What the student is saying would certainly fit the profile of an ‘incident’ that has resulted in her and not Mrs. LeBaron managing the latter’s class. And the blood tells its own story. What on earth happened to the woman? Some special case of the parasomnia that afflicts the town? Something else? Why did it happen? What on earth allowed it to happen? What was spilling blood inside a classroom setting?

As for that name…

Caution, once again, tugs at Hazel’s instincts. Is the young student a test sent by the government after all, to ascertain whether she is determined to keep poking her nose into their business? Or is he simply someone like her, who only yesterday was willing to talk about trampled constitutional rights in the library, in front of another teacher? Someone who really does want answers to all that’s going on? If that is the case, he has the full measure of her pity. Just a little over twenty-four hours since she’s started this job, and already there are least three different paranormal entities breathing down her neck. She can’t wish that… she won’t call it fate yet, but situation, upon someone else by encouraging his interests.

“I’m certain it was stress or a simple nightmare talking,” Hazel answers. “Or… potentially mental illness. But please don’t start any rumors. Mrs. LeBaron will likely be catching enough flak for having that sort of outburst in front of students.”

She’s lucky that the ROSEWATER element has put her on a clear mental script, she muses. She’s not sure how she’d normally handle being approached by a stranger making friendly conversation, apart from ‘not very well.’ In a way, she’s almost thankful for the paranormal element.

“You’ve seen something very upsetting,” Hazel continues to Brook.

She pauses, unsure of what to say. How is she supposed to deal with a student who’s seen a teacher lose it and has blood on his clothes? A single, blessedly simple thought absolves her of the dilemma. Pass the buck.

“Are you—or any other students—physically injured or emotionally traumatized by what you’ve seen? If you wish, I will write you a hall pass to see the school nurse or therapist,” Hazel offers.

GM: As Hazel extends the offer, she realizes that the library is quiet. Too quiet. The other students, whether in the aisles or reading at the tables, have paused their activities and have been staring at Hazel and Brooks. It’s not a malicious stare, it might not even be a conscious one, but it reminds Hazel of drivers on a highway all rubbernecking to stare at a grisly car-crash, a mixture of morbid curiosity and fear. Whether she recalls it or not, she has felt the weight of that collective stare before—and it is no less comforting now.

Hazel: Hazel looks out over the class and calls, “If anyone else feels they need to visit the school nurse or therapist, I will likewise be glad to write out a hall pass. If you don’t, please return to your reading. You’re still here to get work done for your projects.”

She does feel bad for Brook being overheard making those inquiries. At best, he gained nothing—in either popularity with the class, or answers from the librarian that she could not provide, not here and not now. At worst he could have drawn more dangerous attentions. That does reduce the odds he’s one of ROSEWATER’s agents, though. For all their boldness in simply seizing people they want for their own purposes, from what she’s seen, they otherwise prefer to keep public knowledge of their activities in the dark. They made that clear enough when they seized her camcorder. Having someone simply talk to her about the paranormal in a public setting doesn’t seem like their MO.

GM: The students look to one another, then back at their librarian. A few raise their hands.

“I’d like a pass.”

“Me too.”

“Yeah.”

“I want to see the counselor.”

“Please.”

Hazel: Hazel gives a mental frown. She’s no stranger to a class staring at her—but it’s never been for a good or comfortable reason. Damn it, she isn’t sure which of these students actually could use a visit to the nurse, and which just want to get out of doing any work on their projects.

Actually, you know what? I’m coddling them. All they did was hear their teacher yell something disturbing. Brook is the only one with blood on his clothes. The rest of them can get the fuck over it.

“All right, five students is too many. Anyone who is that upset can visit the nurse after school gets out. Until then, please return to your reading.”

GM: There’s a slight grumble as the five lower their hands, and even some snickering from the rest—but not at the librarian. The class then returns to their reading, but she catches or thinks she catches several glances from behind their open books.

Hazel: Turning back to Brook, however, Hazel does write out a hall pass to the school nurse. “I don’t believe in shaming students for what they decide to wear, but in this case, your present wardrobe does distract from the learning environment,” she remarks, looking over his blood-stained clothing. “Nurse Tyson probably has a clean set of spare clothes for occasions like this, but if not, call your mother. If you aren’t able to get back by the end of the period, stop by later and I will have a book on the Picts for you.” Hazel writes out a note explaining that same thing on the ‘comments’ section of the pass, and sends Brook off to the school nurse.

With the class’ largest distraction so removed, Hazel steps back behind her desk and logs onto the computer. There may be no attendance for her to go by, but she’ll manually track down every head in Mrs. LeBaron’s class if she has to in order to ensure no one is skipping. Besides. Anyone who has skipped will get detention. More hands to help catalog books.

GM: A quick search, an email to Agnes, and a swift reply later, Hazel has a digital roster for Mrs. LeBaron’s class. She discovers that, apart from Brook Barnes, another student is missing: Leanne Byers.

Hazel: My new after-school help. Or another religious postulant for the good sister, I suppose. Mindful of the fact the students have been distracted enough already, Hazel spends the rest of the period quietly reading the handbooks she’ll be quizzed on over her computer. Where she can keep an eye out for any other troublemakers or simply students who have academic questions. She’ll see to Leanne once the period is up.

GM: The rest of the period passes peacefully enough. After Veronica Pleats dares to ask Hazel a question and gets a reply that is not quite helpful, but professionally polite, several other students come to the librarian seeking aid and generally receive it. It cuts down on her ability to wade through the dense manuals, but another hydra is defeated, if not tamed.

Hazel: Once Hercules’ second labor has been twice-performed, Hazel has the students sequentially check out their books and releases them once the inter-period bell dings. She then calls Mrs. Sperle and requests that she please summon a one Leanne Byers to the library over the intercom.

GM: After sending a school-wide page for Leanne, Mrs. Sperle calls back and informs Hazel that the young girl is in the Nurse’s Office awaiting her parents. “Did you have a message for her, Mrs. Bauman, that I co-,” Agnes says, then suddenly cuts off as another phone rings. One very close to Agnes’ desk. Maybe even one on her desk.

Hazel: The white or black phones. Those don’t ring too often, but they have a notoriety at Falls High. Student gossip believes that Agnes uses the white phone to talk to “god” or at least its angels. The black one reportedly connects either to Hell or ROSEWATER (and some question whether the Spooks aren’t actually devils).

GM: “I have to go, Ms. Bauman,” the secretary says and hangs up.

Hazel: Hazel raises an eyebrow. Clearly. Well, what happened with Leanne didn’t sound as if the girl was simply skipping. She’ll look into things again later.

Hazel: Attila Awakens


Hazel: The day’s remaining periods roll by. Hazel spends more time reading the handbooks and cataloging books, a far slower task by herself. She’ll be glad when she has Layne working under her, even if she’ll miss some of the solitude. Namely, the solitude that lets her spend time on personal projects such as her predecessor’s journal. It’s been on the back of her mind all day, an itch that can’t be scratched. Now that she has a moment she’ll scrape her skin red.

GM: Now so deep into Daedalus and Icarus’ labyrinth that she cannot easily know what page she is on, Hazel turns to the end of the trucking notes. A few blank pages exist, as if waiting for Mrs. Griswold’s replacement to carry on her work. For a brief and inexplicably alarming moment, Hazel thinks that she’s come to the journal’s abrupt end—but her hammering heart stills when she turns another page and sees pages of written text.

Hazel: That couldn’t have been all. That couldn’t have been all. There is a reason the government got her legally killed, and it’s in these pages. Somewhere.

GM: The next marked page has a hand-written header in Mrs. Griswold’s fine penmanship:

“I went to sup with the moon. Her children let me see where her tear fell, but forbade me from following. There are secrets in the stone. They speak in the language of dreams.”

Hazel: A literal or metaphorical meaning? I’ve had some practice at speaking that tongue.

GM: What follows is a multi-page passage that reminds Hazel of what early Renaissance scholars call “drawing-room plays”, which were meant to be read but not performed, such as Milton’s Samson Agonistes. Its loose, wavy script, however, reminds Hazel of her time in the Lucid Dreamers’ Club doing free-association oneiric journal-writing. In the margins is what appears to be a title to the passage: Ex Disputandem Re Supernibus Ab Probate Quaestori Adversarique.However, the text itself seems to refer to the passage as the Pilgrimage of Young Journeyman Questor, or the Pilgrimage for short.

The Pilgrimage tells the story of an insatiably curious and mystically inclined youth who leaves her small town to roam the world in search of enlightenment. Visiting a succession of holy men, monasteries, and esoteric orders, she manages to effectively destroy each by pointing out some flaw in their philosophy or planting doubt in their faithful hearts, purely by means of her inquisitive nature and unfettered reason. Gradually Quaestor’s quest escalates in a more blatantly supernatural type of high adventure, replete with pitched magical combat, intrigue-riddled secret societies (many of which deftly resemble a Rosicrucian craze), and a wild chase through a bewildering variety of exotic scenes on otherworldly vistas, which are referred to collectively as the “Realms Invisible”.

Hazel: Fascinating. Hazel cannot help but draw a few parallels between the protagonist and herself.

GM: Eventually, her quest leads her to a subterranean cavern beneath a fictitious city. There she sees, on one wall, a huge brass plaque engraved with a strange arrangement of letters upon a grid (the so-called Pretanic Keys), and on the opposite wall, an intricately etched spiral with nine concentric divisions. Here she is engaged in conversation with the Adversarius, a disembodied voice emanating from just over her left shoulder, which has already manifested itself briefly and mysteriously at crucial junctures throughout the preceding narrative.

Hazel discerns that there are some slight but notable parallels between this document and the more commonly known Rosicrucian manifestos. Of foremost importance is the revelation of a supernal triad, spread via the Rosicrucians through virtually all of modem western occultism in the devolved, and arguable degraded form of Kabbalah.

Hazel: Three is the magic number. Even the Christians had to pilfer it.

GM: But it is the climax of the Pilgrimage that most fiercely draws Hazel’s inquisitive attention. Hazel re-reads that section from its beginning:

“Quaestor: Where am I?

Adversarius: Where thou hast always been, at the center of thine own being, in the heart of all Mysteries.

Quaes: Why am I here?

Adver: Thou, Quaestor, who art Master of the Pentangle, Wielder of Blade and Brandisher of Stave, Gazer into the Depths, thou hast scried unflinching into thy heart of hearts, thou hast roared with the gusto of Phrensy, thou hast persevered in the face of Defeat, unlocked the Riddle of Passage and Danced the Duet of Death; Thy soul hast been Sundered and cast afar, yet the Union of thy true Will with the Will of the World hast made thee whole and brought thee thus far. Yet thou dost ever seek the Greater Understanding, the Secret of Secrets; do speak now of thy worthiness to enter into such mystery.

Quaes: I have traveled far and accumulated much in the way of lore; I mark the cycles of earth and heaven in my brow; my gaze penetrates the firmament, and I have discerned the threefold way of the Supernal.

Adver: What is meant by “Supernal?”

Quaes: That word denotes that which is beyond the Abyss, the chasm across which one cannot be carried by reason nor intellection, for the minds of men are dark and dense, admitting of no subtleties. The Supernal is beyond knowing directly through any of the Realms Visible or lnvisible, but is reflected in them all, as it is the source of them all.

Adver: How then can this be known?

Quaes: All teachings tell us that man is a microcosm, that all Realms are reflected in him, though but dimly, just as the Supernal is but dimly reflected in all the Realms of the world. To know this microcosm is to, as I say it, “polish one’s dark orb,” making of one’s mind a smooth reflective sphere, so that whatsoever is outside may be reflected upon the inside, and that which is furthest outside, which is to say, the Supernal, may then be seen at the center of one’s own being. Whosoever is able to perfect this process may take the title “Voyeur of the Dark Orb.”

Adver: Name the threefold way.

Quaes: That which is Supernal may not be named, for all names are finite and limiting, and are thus below the Abyss.

Adver: But that thou shalt perform the naming, thou shalt not pass from this chamber alive!

Quaes: Foremost among the Supernal, the First Principle of all Creation, is the Unity. lt is the source all things, the fount from which flow all the manifold forms and forces of all the worlds, and the end to which they all return when their cycle is complete. Within the Unity, All is One, All is within the One, just as the One is within All. Every extreme finds its complement, and all opposing aspects of Creation are reconciled.

Adver: By what image is the Unity represented in this world?

Quaes: By that which forms the border of this brass plaque, the Ouroboros, the serpent swallowing its own tail. Thus is represented the union of beginning and end, for it is the Great Dragon whose body encloses all of Creation, its tail excreting the substance of the world while the mouth swallows it. It is also the serpent entwined throughout the Tree of Life, its coils cradling the fruits that are all the Realms of existence, holding each in their proper relations and balance. Hence may it be named the Magnus Vermis.

Adver: Even so. But speak now of how the way may be threefold.

Quaes: From the Unity emanates the Supernal Dyad, the opposed and yet interdependent twins of Force and Form, of Becoming and Being, of Time and Space. The first emanation is formed from the Urge of the One to know Itself, to reach out to all that is not Its Self, whereby It may look back and regard Its Self as distinguished from what is not Itself. It is this first action, the reaching out, but not the looking back, which is considered the first part of the Dyad. This action is the movement that initiates the beginning of time, and the force which drives all things to change through time.

Adver: How is the first emanation reflected in this world?

Quaes: It is reflected in the going forth of men and in their going to and fro, their interactions mounting, as is only natural, into conflict and strife.

Adver: And how is it reflected in the individual?

Quaes: It is reflected in the action of will, in man’s going forth to impose his will upon the world, for this is the greatest strength of man, the Urge of the Unity acting through him. The purest expression of this strength is by its own nature expansive and explosive, the fury that makes man wear the mask of the beast and tears away the mask of the man from the beast.

Adver: Speak now of the second emanation.

Quaes: The second emanation is also the Urge of the One to know Itself, being the completion of that Urge. For it is the Unity’s knowledge of Its own action, containing and swallowing that action by being conscious of it, and being furthermore conscious of that consciousness. Here it is that distinction is made between the One’s Self and that which is not Its Self. The Unity has thus separated Its mind from Itself, but, through the cyclic action of the Urge, seeks to reunite.

Adver: How is the second emanation reflected in this world?

Quaes: It is reflected in the knowledge of all the actions and interactions of men, in accord with the first emanation. It can be seen in the women administering to the dead and wounded from battle, thus containing and dissipating the energies of conflict and strife, clearing the way for understanding, and the developing of culture. Thus may it best be seen in the writing of history, where the actions of men upon each other may be unfurled and laid out like a great net or Web.

Adver: And how is it reflected in the individual?

Quaes: It is reflected in the contemplation of past actions, wherein the energies of fury are grounded and dispersed. This tightens the cycle of self-awareness, for it is the hunger of the mind consuming itself. Hence may it be named Eater of Souls.

Adver: In all that you have said there is harmony and balance, and so must there be harmony and balance in the world.

Quaes: But in this world there is no harmony or balance.

Adver: So how then can this be?

Quaes: I know not, for it was none of my doing.

Adver: Answer me or die!

Quaes: With the cycle of self-consciousness complete, the Unity has swallowed and consumed itself. Thus losing Its own identity, the Unity has become a Plurality, alienated from Its Self by the divisions and distinctions imposed by the Web of the second emanation. The single Urge to self-knowledge is divided, by passage through the Web, into the manifold conflicting Urges of the human heart. The serpent has lost its grip and now spirals out of control, but is nonetheless ensnared and trapped within the ever-tightening Web. The original Unity, now seen from afar, is perceived as alien, as Other than Self, despoiling the harmony of the original separation and distinction. Hence may it be named the Defiler.

Adver: Gaze ye then upon the walls of this chamber. What is the meaning of these images?

Quaes: Upon the one hand I see the Spiral Labyrinth, which may be considered a map of that portion of the Web wherein the unbalanced Magnus Vermis is imprisoned. And upon the other hand, this plaque shows the divided mind of the captive Magnus Vermis; in the left-hand column I discern the four signs of the elements, long used by the alchemists; across the top, these three glyphs represent the reflections of the Supernal. Here is Beast, head rampant for the attack. Here is Eater of Souls, devouring itself like the Wyrm of Unity and balance, but doubled over in separation. And here is the Defiler, burrowing ever inward to the Unity at the heart of all things. I take these subdivisions then to signify the divided Urges, rendered apart from one another by Supernal distinction above and worldly separation below. Herein is mapped the frenzied mind of the captive, yearning to escape.

Adver: How then mayest one undertake to reunite the divided Self?

Quaes: One must dance the Labyrinth, which is to say, one must navigate that portion of the Web in which the true Magnus Vermis is imprisoned. On this side is the map of the prison, and on this side is the key to unlocking the Mystery at its center. These show us the way of the return to Unity.

Adver: After what fashion?

Quaes: One must follow in backward fashion the spiral of unbalance, gathering up the strands of the Web of distinctions and separations, following one’s own Urge back to the source of all Urges. All Urges are in this sense thoughts of Beast, not conscious thought but pure will to action. Union with one’s Urge brings action without thought, tearing aside the Web through fury, freeing oneself from the Eater of Souls. By this way is the tail returned to the serpent’s mouth, defiling the Defiler by restoring the true balance.

Adver: Thou hast spoken all the names truthfully and in earnest. Thou mayest now leave here with thy life.

Quaes: I cannot leave, for there is nothing beyond this chamber. I have never been any place but here, in the center of all Mysteries.

Adver: Go forth now, I tell thee! Go forth and know thyself through thy actions, as is thy Urge!

Quaes: I have no more Urge. There is no action to be taken. I know nothing. Thus I am nothing.

Adver: Quaestor?

Quaes: …

Adver: Quaestor?

Quaes: …

Adver: And so her voice is silenced, her mind consumed and her body dispersed. So too shall I pass from existence, for I was never anything other than her own need to know herself, always hidden from her in the shadow cast by the light of her scintillating intelligence. As she is now nothing, so must I be. And so to you Dear Reader, I bid farewell.

Adver: Yet still I hunger….

GM: Upon completing the passage, Hazel feels an icy chill run up her spine, as if she has just witnessed a horrible echo from the past—or a cold premonition of the future. Maybe hers.

Hazel: The book softly snaps closed.

That’s not how the story was supposed to end.

GM: But that very well may be how it ends. How she ends. If she keeps reading. Keeps seeking.

Hazel: No. No. No. Quaestor had—had won. She’d won. She’d been clever enough. Answered every question posed of her. Unraveled every mystery.

There… there wasn’t nothing. There couldn’t be nothing. There couldn’t be. That’s not how things were supposed to go! That’s not how the story was supposed to end!

Her hands. They’re shaking. She stares down at that… that book. That awful, mocking, wrong book. A momentary impulse strikes her to chuck it into a fire. Feed it through a wood chipper. But it’s a lazy, empty, half-hearted thought. She doesn’t feel like doing that right now. She doesn’t feel like doing anything right now.

I am reaching but I fall
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold


Hazel’s eyes drift from her desk to the library’s floor. It’s a negligible distance. She suddenly hears herself laughing. “I wanted to commit suicide by jumping off my desk.”

She snorts. She laughs. She has to laugh. If she doesn’t laugh… but it’s just a story. Just a silly, stupid story, as divorced from reality as the notion she could commit suicide from her office desk.

“I wanted to…” She doesn’t finish the sentence before she starts laughing again. Just a silly, overwrought story. There’s a reason books are divided into fiction and non-fiction. She clings to the thought. Shovels it up. Buries her previous one deep under it. Deep, deep, deep under it. She throws the shovel aside, dusts off her hands, and stuffs the journal back inside her backpack. Buries it inside her backpack, underneath her umbrella, underneath her bicycle helmet, underneath the zipper.

“I’ve got other things to do.” She does. She certainly believes that. Fervently enough to even say it out loud.

But what’s buried deep can always be dug back up.

GM: Hazel returns to the mundanity of the school manuals, but her solace is disturbed by a call from Mrs. Sperle. Actually, not so much a call as an announcement over the intercom.

“Attention, students and staff,” her voice says, echoing in the Chimera and throughout the school, “We have a joint service announcement from the mayor’s office and the Steering Committee of Mount Pelion General Hospital. Teachers and students, please cease all activities, and give you attention to-”

There’s the sound of a muffled hand over the mike, but Hazel can hear the brief exchange.

“I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?”

“I didn’t,” comes a deep male voice.

The intercom comes back on full with the latter voice speaking:

“Good afternoon, staff and students of Witiko Falls High School. As a joint representative of the mayor and Mount Pelion General Hospital, it is my responsibility to inform you that a gas leak occurred at the hospital at 11:37 am this morning. The leak was restricted to only one floor of the hospital and swiftly contained. Swift evacuation and prompt obedience by the hospital staff ensured that no casualties occurred. At this time, the leak is contained, and you are in no danger. I repeat: you are in no danger. However, if you suspect that you smell an unnatural odor or experience symptoms consistent with auditory, visual, or somatic hallucinations, please contact the mayor’s office immediately. Thank you for your cooperation and have a wonderful, normal, incident-free day.”

Hazel: Hazel smells an unnatural odor to this, all right. Who is the man that wouldn’t give his name? And why contact the mayor’s office rather than 911 for hallucinations? That hospital leak might be worth looking into. It and so many other things. Her plate has grown so very full after only a single day on the job.

GM: Her plate only grows fuller when she receives a new email from Mrs. Sperle informing her that her sixth period duties will involve managing the same Agricultural Science class from yesterday, as their teacher is out on ‘sick leave’.

And then, as if some divine comedy is at play, Hazel’s phone rings. It’s Mrs. Sperle, saying she has a call from Sheriff Bauman.

A moment later, she’s talking to her father: “Hey, kiddo, how you doing?”

Hazel: Hazel sighs at the prospect of another class to manage. It’ll be easier after she’s already warmed up on today’s, and the breaks in between help. So does it being a class she’s already had. But…

“Hi Daddy,” she smiles at his voice. “Tired. I’ve got another class to teach… well, manage, because the teacher isn’t there. It takes a lot of energy. Dealing with… so many people.”

GM: “You want me to bring you something? Fresh cup of joe, a shake, or something?”

Hazel: She smiles again. “Thanks, Daddy. I don’t mean it’s physically tiring, though. I’ll just be happy getting a ride home with you.”

GM: “Speaking of that ride home, do you mind if we make a stop on the way? Father Ostergaard called. He said he found something—and he specifically asked if you’d be willing to come.”

Hazel: Hazel initially pauses at the prospect of seeing the priest again. But it could be a lead. “Yes, that’s okay.”

GM: “Great! So should I swing by the same time as yesterday or right when school gets out?”

Hazel: “Same time as yesterday. It looks like I’ll usually be having a fair bit of work to get done after school hours. Still, I guess I am pretty lucky next to the other teachers. I don’t have to grade any assignments.”

GM: Harvey groans half-humorously at the mention of paperwork.

Hazel: “There really are a lot of similarities between our jobs,” Hazel remarks amusedly.

GM: “Yeah, but I get a shiny badge,” her dad teases back.

Hazel: “Shoot, that’s right. Maybe that’s something I can ask for once I’ve earned some seniority.”

GM: “Make sure it’s shiny,” he jests. “And don-” Hazel hears a door knock through the receiver. “Gotta scoot, pumpkin. See you soon, drown ’em deep!”

Hazel: “I’ll try, Daddy. See you in a bit,” Hazel smiles as she hangs up.

GM: Lance’s class arrives shortly thereafter.

Hazel: Hazel’s had some experience dealing with them. If students need any help finding new books or answering academics-related questions, she provides it. Otherwise, she instructs them to simply read for the rest of the period.

GM: Or at least that’s how Hazel thought things were going to go.

Without their teacher, the students are clearly off-kilter and agitated. They clearly did not expect a second day in the library—they clearly are unhappy with the sudden absence of their instructor. Hazel threatens to withhold her assistance unless the seething mob falls in line—but her efforts backfire or at least fizzle. They don’t want her help, at least academically. They want answers. Above all they want to know where Mr. McDermott is. It’s sixth period. They’ve heard rumors. Bad ones.

After a few minutes, Hazel has lost any illusion of control. The students are discussing storming the principal’s office, demanding to know where their teacher is and if he’s okay. Some say he’s dead. That he was killed by a truck on the highway. Others say he’s in the hospital, probably involved with the gas leak. Others whisper about the Spooks being involved.

Hazel: Hazel sighs. She’s tempted to give everyone after-school detention, but… well, it’s apparent that they really do care about their teacher and aren’t simply being snots. And she really isn’t much good at reading people until her foot is stuck squarely in her mouth, so maybe it’s no surprise the class has gotten out of hand. Hazel attempts to call the unruly teenagers to order, promising to explain everything she can about Lance—which is more than most, as she and her father were there at the crime scene and saw him get hauled away on a stretcher. They don’t know what happened. Father Ostergaard had the fortune to arrive on the scene and administer timely first aid that will have saved Lance’s life—if he pulls through. Hazel states how she wishes she could give them an answer there, but she honestly doesn’t know. No one knows, the principal included—storming the office isn’t going to help anyone, Lance most of all. But if they would like to do that, Hazel will allow them to use the rest of class time to work on “get well” cards for their teacher. Those will be sure to brighten his day when he wakes up and finds they’ve all been thinking about him.

She tries to connect it to a larger life lesson about how sometimes you just don’t have all the answers, and bad things happen for no reason at all—all you can do is try to make the best of things and still be a force for good.

GM: Hazel’s last ditch attempt at regaining control works—or at least halts the brewing walk-out or storming of the principal’s office, which are no small successes. Young and emotionally irrational, the teens don’t seem to care much about the ‘big picture’, but instead are captivated, or contained, by all the details Hazel has—and she has a lot of details. Although all listen to those details, some appear reluctant to believe the librarian. Others yet remain salty towards the librarian, upset that she didn’t share all this information earlier or with the entire school via an announcement. Several students suggest organizing a prayer service or candlelit vigil. Others suggest that the class should go to the hospital, but Hazel manages to steer them into waiting for school, or at least sixth period, to end. Others still remain livid, but at least channel their anger into conjecturing who could be responsible for such a heinous deed. None take up Hazel’s suggestion of making get-well cards.

Hazel: She sighs to herself. Was that the wrong call, making cards? And how would she have delivered them anyways? She didn’t want to visit Lance’s room—or maybe she should, if that’s the proper thing to—aaaagh. She’ll just call it a victory they aren’t storming the principal’s office. Or forcing her to threaten bringing in her dad, her secondary plan—or forcing her to actually do so, her tertiary one.

GM: When sixth period ends, the classmates remain divided and preoccupied. But the period ends all the same, and Hazel is once again left to her own devices—with Jake likely around doing something that is likely helpful.

Hazel: She thanks him again for his helpful efforts if she sees him and otherwise spends the period accomplishing real work. He doesn’t need to see her researching the evil eye.

GM: Again.

Hazel: She remembers all-too well that happening last time. She doesn’t care if he sees her reading sexually explicit texts, but it’s an all-too natural question to ask why she’s reading them, and from there…

Well, in short, she stands absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose. She does wonder if he could help her research. Many hands make light work, and she needs to get as much of this done as fast as she can. But no. He’s just a student. She can’t risk bringing him in. And plus, frankly, she’d rather not do that kind of research around a horny teenage boy.

GM: Instead, the next and last period of the day is spent in tedious cataloging and handbook reading. It’s difficult to say which is more exhilarating, but she makes an appreciable dent in the latter activity.

Hazel: As much as she appreciates her solitude, she really can’t say she’ll be sorry to have Layne around as another set of hands. Cataloging is simple, repetitive work. Good for her to be doing.

GM: As the bell rings, Jake reappears from a nether-region of the Chimera, checks out some books, and saunters out with a farewell wave. Hazel is thus left with a few minutes to pack-up, clock-out, and head over to her uncle’s office.

Hazel: Hazel likewise wishes him a courteous goodbye. She finishes up a few things in the library—packing up, clocking out—locks the doors (if closing at the end of the school day is accepted policy), and then sets out for Uncle Leo’s office.

Arriving outside the door, Hazel knocks politely to announce her presence. As much as she would loathe someone barging unannounced into her own office (if she had one), that was a habit her parents had to consciously drill into her as a child. Knock first.

GM: “Enter,” her uncle replies.

Hazel: Hazel promptly does so.

GM: The windowless office is neither spacious nor lavish, but it is clean and sufficient for its purposes. Beyond the typical filing cabinets, fluorescent lighting, computer, desk, and chairs, there are only three ‘personal’ touches. The first is an entire wall of photos of graduating Kelpies dressed in cap and gowns—Hazel notes herself adorning one corner. The second is a pair of mobiles dangling from hooks in the ceiling tiles. They resemble atomic or astrological configurations. The third rests on his austere desk. It is an astonishing large, irregular glob of gold about the size of a full man’s fist or more. Vice Principal Schoening sits behind the desk, but rises at his ’niece’s’ entrance. He motions for her to take seat, then joins her.

Hazel: Hazel assumes one, observing the room’s various decorations. “If you would indulge my personal curiosity for a moment, Vice Principal, may I inquire as to the gold’s personal significance to you?”

GM: Leopold regards Hazel with his ocean-grey eyes and their abyssopelagic pressure. He then passes her the large golden lump. Almost reverentially.

Hazel: Hazel turns it over in her hands, slowly examining the lump. “Nazi gold?”

GM: She feels a ping of self-congratulation upon hearing her uncle’s next words. He does not nod, but simply recounts, “As Aktion Reinhardt, or Operation Reinhard, commenced in Auschwitz II–Birkenau, one of the Schutzstaffel-Totenkopfverbände, or Death’s Head guards determined that there was some value to be extracted by those sentenced to the mass showers of Zyklon B. Namely, their gold filings.” He looks down at the lump in Hazel’s hands.

“His superior, however, deemed that further value could be extracted by combining and re-forging the extracted filings into the shape of a Third Reich swastika, an intended gift to curry the Führer’s favor. Hitler himself held the golden symbol of the Final Solution, and carried it with him into his Führerbunker in 1945. He may well have stared it as he loaded the firearm with which he ended his reign. The Red Army took the golden idol, and thereafter it changed hands many times. One collector, however, purchased it at great price, only to burn away its many impurities.”

Hazel: Hazel turns the grim decoration over, as if expecting to catch the reflection of a man who made the world tremble against the glint of the office’s lights.

GM: “Or it may be an alloy of one part iron, two parts sulfur that has little monetary or historical significance.”

The erudite Hazel identifies the compound as pyrite—as well as its name in the vernacular: fool’s gold.

“You may decide the truth of both tales,” Leopold concludes.

Hazel: “The latter would be my own conclusion. What value, then, do you place upon it?” the literal-minded librarian asks.

GM: “And upon what evidence do you base that conclusion, Ms. Bauman?” the man asks, ignoring for the moment her own question.

Hazel: Hazel turns the pyrite lump over, holding it by one of the lights, then away. “Gold shines at any angle, not merely when ‘the light is right.’”

GM: Leo extends a slim, upturned hand towards the lump. “So you make your judgment based upon the material itself and the interactive physical properties it seems to possess.”

Hazel: “I do. There are further tests I could perform with access to the requisite materials.” Hazel passes the ‘gold’ back.

GM: The vice principal takes a red handkerchief and polishes the lump to a fine gleam and sets it on his desk. Perhaps it is the new angle of the lights, or perhaps it is the new angle of her lenses, but the metallic glob seems to positively shine true—almost glow.

She blinks and momentarily hears, or imagines she hears, the screaming of naked, starving Jews as they claw at locked doors. But as her eyes open, she sees that Leopold’s expression at least remains immutable.

Hazel: Hazel blinks against the… visions? She’s read about the Holocaust, seen a few films, but…

“I was premature in my assessment. Further tests were warranted,” Hazel states.

GM: “And how proceeds the other assessment we discussed?”

Hazel: “It has not proceeded since our last discussion. I have a great deal of cataloging to finish before I may reform the Junior Deputies and enlist their assistance. I do, however, have a potential means—or I should say person—in mind by which to more quickly reduce the remaining backlog.”

GM: “Collection and calibration of necessary measurement apparatus is laudable, but further delays may inadvertently cause maturation effects to contaminate your results. But of whom do you speak?”

Hazel: “Layne Tuttle. She wishes to work as an assistant librarian. I believe she would be well-suited to the position.”

GM: Uncle Leo seems surprised. It’s not an expression he wears frequently. He leans back, steepling his fingers. “Her attachment to you has been marked, both in its valence and degree.”

Hazel: “She had also informed me that she would inform you, though I am unsurprised such evidently did not take place.” Hazel pauses. “I feel sorry for her, Vice Principal.”

GM: He regards her over his steepled fingers. “To clarify, the error is mine. Ms. Tuttle did inform me of her desire. I, however, miscalculated the alignment of that desire with yours.”

Hazel: Hazel looks moderately surprised at that. Uncle Leo usually isn’t off in his judgments.

GM: “Your pity is understandable. That such would move you to offer her mentorship is surprising.”

Hazel: “Emotions are meaningless when not acted upon.”

GM: “Action is a road with many forks. Perhaps then it is best that we discuss Ms. Tuttle’s condition before concluding her fitness for the position?”

Hazel: Hazel pauses. You are being observed. By ROSEWATER? Layne Tuttle is certainly a subject that has their interest.

GM: Rather than indicating recrimination for Hazel’s potentially premature judgment or proposal, Leo’s mesmeric gaze seems to hum with curiosity.

Hazel: She’d even thought up a way to delicately bring up the subject, to tell Leo she absolved him of his pledge until a later time. She was going to talk to him about observer effect, had even prepared the innuendos with which to lace her speech. A gamble all the same, telling him as much, but she had the impression he would not lightly renege upon his word.

The gears grind to a stop in her head. She isn’t certain how to backtrack a conversation, this abruptly. If someone isn’t watching, all of this is moot. If someone is, however, the abrupt shift of topic is likely to arouse the very suspicion she seeks to avoid.

Am I being paranoid? All I have is the word an anonymous email.

Yes. One sent from your own computer, while you were huddled under your desk hyperventilating.

The gears twist, whine, and scream. She can’t adjust course. Can’t think of something else to say, not without time to prepare. She’ll stick to the plan and soldier through, heedless of the changing circumstances.

“Observer effect,” Hazel states abruptly. “Would you like to discuss that first? Vice Principal.” The sudden conversational shift has all the grace of a car crash.

GM: “Very well, Mrs. Bauman. What have you observed about Ms. Tuttle, and how do you perceive those observations affecting you and her?”

Hazel: “I did not mean about Layne Tuttle, Vice Principal. I have had observations as they pertain to the concept in general.” Hazel gratefully, if clumsily, follows the conversational thread she had scripted out in advance. Between her explanations of how the principle manifests within computer science, expanding on the examples she offered to Leo yesterday, Hazel attempts to lace her speech with innuendos that highlight how she herself is being observed, and as a result, is consciously changing her behavior.

I am being watched. I release you from your pledge until a later time.

If anyone is, in fact, listening, she hopes it just sounds like the propensity of someone with ASD to awkwardly ramble on about topics they find interesting with someone they intellectually respect.

GM: Unfortunately for Hazel, several of her innuendos are less effective when not spoken aloud. Consequently, her awkward ramblings about the observer effect and its manifestations in computer science does intrigue Leo, and he respectfully, even energetically, listens, but when she eventually runs out of verbal steam, Leo just reiterates his previous question.

“All very fascinating and enlightening, Ms. Bauman. But now let us apply said lessons to the primary subject at hand: Ms. Tuttle. What have you observed about Ms. Tuttle, and how do you perceive those observations affecting you and her?”

Hazel: Damn it. Damn it. Hazel thinks fast—-tries to think fast. “Oh, look at the time. I have rambled. I am certain we both have other things to do, before the day is out. I would consider it acceptable to discuss Layne Tuttle at a future, more convenient date. Would you find it likewise, Vice Principal? I am certain she can wait one more day to potentially begin working in the library.” Damn it, I should have just called him earlier to postpone our talk until after tomorrow. The obvious solution occurs to her far too late to be useful, as it so often does.

GM: Vice Principal Schoening rises and walks out from behind his austere desk and its gleaming golden lump. Initially, Hazel expects he is about to open the door and excuse her. Instead, he reaches forward with a chirurgeon-finger and touches her scalp, re-tracing a cross. “Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.” Hyper-aware of physical contact, Hazel notes that Leo’s cross has been traced upside down this time.

Hazel: Hazel immediately stiffens at the unexpected contact. Is he repudiating her for attempting to make him go back on his word, as he sees it?

GM: Despite being a lost sheep in Father Ostergaard’s flock, Hazel recognizes the scriptural passage: it is where Jesus rebukes Simon Peter for tempting his master to not take up his cross, both literally and metaphorically. She also recalls the following verse: “Whoever desires to be my disciple, let them deny themselves, and take up the cross, and follow me.” She also knows that Simon Peter did that very thing, both literally and figuratively, though his cross was inverted.

Hazel: Well, this is it. He can either tell her everything, and someone who’s listening can hear it all, or… “You could be in danger if you talk to me!” Hazel abruptly snaps, pulling away. “You did not swear your pledge with that knowledge. I release you of it.”

She groans inside. And there it all goes. If anyone’s listening, well, there’s their fill. She could have just avoided this with a damn phone call!

GM: Leopold does not startle, withdraw, or make any motion except the absence of motion. A pause. Then, he speaks, “You cannot release what you have bound. Tell me more, Hazel Attila Bauman.”

Hazel: “I have said too much already. They know that I know now, if they are in fact listening,” Hazel resignedly admits. With pretenses completely dropped, she no longer consciously restrains herself from looking around the office, searching for hidden eyes and ears. As if it will be that easy, she silently chides.

GM: Leopold does not follow her gaze, but keeps it fixed upon Hazel’s heart. “Ipsa scientia potestas est. Knowledge is power—and power always has a price. Recall that only yesterday I asked if you were certain that you wished an answer. You said you did. Danger and more may be the price we pay. There is no safety in true science.”

Hazel: “A surcharge needlessly paid for a transaction that can still occur under more favorable circumstances—ones merely a day later. Risk cannot be eliminated, but with prudence and forethought, may be minimized. I have invited wholly preventable danger on myself, and quite possibly you, through my… insufficiently developed interpersonal skills.”

GM: Leopold stares into Hazel’s eyes, riveting her gaze to his. “Know that I do not reject you, Hazel Attila Bauman. Cephas rejected the Nazarene thrice before taking up the cross of true discipleship, and even the Lord himself required Simon of Cyrene.”

Then, he is over by the door, holding it open for her.

Hazel: Hazel looks towards the door. Things are… a mess now, if she really was being watched. She’s tried to do what she thought was right. All the same, knowing what happened to Layne Tuttle… the knowledge… the simple fact that it will not be hers now still sends a needful twinge through Hazel’s heart. Nevertheless, she inclines her head and states,

“Thank you, Vice Principal. We will speak again a time that is more convenient for you.”

She pauses at the doorway, however. “There is one final matter. You have previously expressed the sentiment that names should be properly employed so as to recognize their power. My full name is Hazel Calloway Attila Bauman.”

GM: Leopold Schoening regards Hazel for a long time. His gaze almost feels like it could pierce her brow, and make her bleed. She can almost smell the coppery aroma. “Your true name is not yet to be revealed.”

She can hear the red echo in the marrow of her mind.

True name

Hazel: Hazel is initially unsure what to reply to that statement. It is the name on her birth certificate, and if there is power in true names being secret, as many occult principles suggest, hers has already been diluted. Then again, how often do people with two middle names use them both? Attila is in her email address, but it’s unlikely that anyone outside her family even knows that her other middle name is Calloway.

“A time and place for all things, then. Good day, Vice Principal,” Hazel replies, endeavoring to push past the pounding in her head. Not just from Leo.

GM: Leaving his office, Hazel finds Mrs. Sperle packing up for the day. She glances up as the librarian walks past her, starts to give a greeting, but stops, slightly slack-jawed as her lazy eye begins to swim like a tail-less tadpole in her eye. She sits back down, grabs her green phone, and starts dialing a number, no longer making eye contact with the young woman save for a suspicious glance. The rest of the office staff have seemingly gone home.

Hazel: As if her day could get any more awkward. “Mrs. Sperle, are you well?” she inquires.

GM: “Er… yes,” Agnes replies, her one eye flitting up to Hazel’s face only to look down and continue dialing.

Hazel: “Ah… do I look unwell?”

GM: “Of course… not,” the older woman says. “Excuse me… I have a call to make.”

Hazel: “Certainly,” Hazel replies, making her way off. That was… awkward. She runs a hand over her face. I’m not actually bleeding, am I?

GM: Out in the hallway, she draws back her fingers and finds them painted rose-red.

Hazel: Her eyes widen as she pulls out a mirror from her purse.

GM: Her touch has marred its image, but the mirror clearly shows the vestige of a bloody cross upon her brow.

Hazel: She stares for a moment. Christ, Leo. She wipes it off with some tissues. And Christ yourself, Agnes. I did ask you, she thinks irritably. Once she is cleaned up, she returns to the library. She isn’t done yet.

With a great deal.

“Hi, Lindsay, it’s Hazel. It’s been a little while, hasn’t it? How are you?” Hazel reads off the script she’s prepared after she’s dialed her former flatmate’s number. Their association started in the summer of Hazel’s sophomore year in college, when it was time for her to move out of the dorm room she hadn’t shared with a roommate. She’d thought to simply move in with her grandparents for her remaining three years at Gonzaga, but Mom had really wanted her to push herself socially, offering to pay for her rent, groceries, and every other non-school expense just so long as she would finally live with someone besides her family.

Hazel eventually agreed, but was a recluse all the same. She would stare through the peephole every time she left her apartment to make sure no one else was in the hallway—and on occasions she initially failed to spot the anthropology graduate student, would quickly duck back inside with a sour expression. It took Lindsay’s cat, Lewis, to finally break that very thick ice. In retrospect, she felt very silly. Mom had searched harder than she’d given credit to find a neighbor she’d (eventually) be able to get along with.

GM: “Hazel?” Lindsay answers, likely surprised by her caller ID as well as the fact that her asocial ex-neighbor is calling her. It takes Lindsay a moment to register and disentangle the stream of questions. “Damn, girl, you still reading from notecards?”

Hazel: “W-what?” Hazel asks, flustered. That wasn’t on the script at all.

GM: “I’m just messing with you,” the post-grad says with a slight laugh, or at least audible smirk. “So how are things?”

Hazel: She recovers after she’s had a moment to process the question. “Well, actually, you caught me. It was off my laptop.”

GM: “A modern woman.”

Hazel: “An environmentally concerned one too.”

GM: “The Mother Goddess approves of your conscientiousness, no doubt.” The volume and voice changes a bit. “Hear that, Lewis, it’s your fur-less girlfriend?”

There’s a subtle purr.

“Fat-boy says ‘hello’, Hazel.”

Hazel: Hazel laughs upon hearing that. “He’s the only man for me. Ever. And yes. I figure it cannot hurt to appease as many potential spiritual entities as possible.”

GM: “So what’s this Witiko Falls High School on my called ID? I remember I suggested you continue on with your schooling, but I meant grad school, not high school.”

Hazel: Hazel manages not to clear her throat at that. Lindsay doesn’t mean it, but it sounds… a great deal like something Mom would say. “It’s the site of my new librarian job. The school’s collection is… extraordinarily comprehensive. You’d enjoy perusing it. You wouldn’t believe some of the books I’ve run across.”I still don’t.

GM: “That sounds like a sweet gig. Sitting in cool AC, reading books, fighting the patriarchy one burnt bra at a time.”

Hazel: Yeah, it really is. Though one of the books I read nearly crashed my dad’s car and seems to be, if not sentient, linked to an unknown force that has an unwholesome interest in me, so there is that.

“And fighting the students. They require an iron fist in another iron glove to keep them in line, but I tolerate little dissent in my kingdom. Queendom.”

GM: “That’a girl,” Lindsay says warmly. Lewis meows. “Meanwhile I’m out here sweating buckets in Winnemucca Lake. Or should I say the ghost of Winnemucca Lake.”

Hazel: “That’s in… Nevada, isn’t it? What are you doing all the way out there? And poor Lewis, in that fur coat.”

GM: “Dropping peyote, reading a lot of Mircea Eliade, and working as a research assistant for a geochemist, though sometimes the job description blurs all three. And yeah, Lewis misses Washington. Although he’s become pretty good at hunting scorpions. Fat-boy doesn’t eat them, he just murders them like the savage fascist serial killer he is. Isn’t that right?” she asks the cat in an overwrought voice. Lewis meows.

Hazel: “The heat’s been good for him. I remember the time a mouse got into the building, and my first thought was ‘set the cat after it.’ And the fatso was more interested in remaining planted on his rear.”

GM: “You should have told him the mouse was tuna-flavored.”

Hazel: “Or dropped tuna on the mouse. Granted, if you can do that, you can probably catch it yourself.”

GM: Switching back, Lindsay adds, “But it’s not so bad, not now at least. Summer was flesh-melting bad. Now, I actually need a sleeping blanket at night.”

Hazel: “Yes, that’s supposed to be a remarkable contrast with desert environments. As cold at night as hot in day. I believe there are even some Arabian legends about vampires that stalk the sands by day, because prudent travelers choose to journey by night.”

Hazel frowns, wondering if she’s rambling a bit. She tries to connect it back to an earlier conversational thread. “So sic Lewis on them if you see any.”

GM: “Will do, Hazel.” And then, after a pause, “So what’s up?”

Hazel: “I wanted to say thanks for the Hamsa you got me earlier. It’s proven very useful in a research project I’ve been doing into the evil eye.” I also masturbated while wearing it, Hazel mentally finishes, abruptly glad she’s talking over the phone.

GM: Blissfully ignorant of Hazel’s thoughts, Lindsay replies, “Oh, good. I’m assuming this is your own personal project and not a student’s?” She has after all, heard a few or more stories during their time together.

Hazel: “Oh yes, as if I’d help any students after school hours with my current work backlog. The eye is a fascinatingly pan-cultural mythos, in any case. Virtually every non-Native American and South Sea Island culture has legends pertaining to it.”

GM: “Yeah, it makes you wonder if the likes of Jung, Lewis-Williams, and Eliade are on to something.”

Hazel: “They are. In fact, it’s a testament to how prevalent the myth is that you’ll run into Native Americans who swear that medicine men and their grandmothers can cast the evil eye—I read an article, or I suppose more testimony, from one online—despite the eye not actually having any historical basis in their culture. They’ve appropriated it from us and are convinced it’s part of their heritage too.”

GM: “Maybe it’s something deeper, Hazel. Maybe it’s something we’re hard-wired to see, or experience. You know, like Plato’s solids or more likely like Klüver’s form constants. That’s what I’m down here for. Here in Winnemucca.”

Hazel: You have no idea. “And if one examines closer, the mythos is…” Hazel trails off. It could be a coincidence. Could be. “You are?”

GM: “Yep, and why I’m slogging through a dead Romanian’s books like a freshman cramming before finals.”

Hazel: “At the same I’m looking into it. What an unexpected yet mutually beneficial twist of fate.”

GM: Lindsay’s quiet for a moment, then says, “I never did tell you about my thesis, or really what led me into my… field.”

Hazel: Hazel would normally wonder if it would be socially appropriate for her to make a joke here. But this is no joking matter. “Cats. They are reported to bring luck under certain circumstances, too,” Hazel slowly states as if connecting dots. “Save for black ones. And Lewis isn’t.”

GM: Lindsay’s tone takes on a nervous, or at least harried, edge. “Look, I’ve got to go. I’ll send you my thesis—the unedited version. But I think you’re on the right track. Take care. I’ll be in touch.” The line goes dead.

Hazel: “I’ll se-” Hazel is cut off. Another time, another place, she might feel awkward and wonder what she has said that’s wrong. She might think to send Lindsay her own compiled notes as a half-thank you, half-apology. She probably will later. Something is caught in her throat. That wasn’t a coincidence. It was fate. As if in a trance, her hands begin pulling out books. Searching. Indexing. Referencing. Cross-referencing. She’s in the zone. On auto-pilot. Buttressed by the cold knowledge that she is not simply researching her nocturnal visitor—she is hunting it. This thing is only safe from her so long as it remains anonymous. Has her chasing shadows. Has her unable to draw up informed plans. She’s always been better at planning than improvising. No more. Let Sol’s eye shine large and bright. She strains and heaves, as if she might burst the chain shackling her to the wall of Plato’s cave.

GM: The chains don’t yet break today, but they surely bend. She will need further time to read Lindsay’s unabridged manuscript, and she has another hunch she has to look into back at the Sweeney’s—but she’s close. Very close.

Maybe even too close.

GM: Several minutes later, Hazel is back in her dad’s patrol truck, returning to the Church of the Almighty Shadow to re-question Reverend Ostergaard. Unlike the prior trip to the cemetery-shrouded church, this drive is peaceful.

The sun, though fast dipping, is still in the sky. Its amber light cascades down the mountains and soaks the valley and river in its autumnal glow. Birds chirp and the air has the strong fragrance of wild pines and flowing water. Kids play street-hockey while their mothers supervise mid-weeding their prim gardens. Both the former and the latter wave greetings to “Sheriff” Bauman as his truck passes by.

Hazel: “I suppressed a rebellion,” Hazel answers on the way over as her dad asks how her day went.

GM: “A rebellion?” her father asks. He is wearing a clean uniform, and has donned another cowboy hat. His chin and temple remain purpled with bruises, but he otherwise seems hale and untouched by the horrors of not so many hours ago.

Hazel: “The class I ended up managing was Lance’s,” Hazel half-states, half-sighs as she watches the pastoral scenes roll by.

GM: “Ouch.”

Hazel: “Was cards the wrong call?” Hazel then frowns, realizing her words lack context.

GM: “Cards?” her father asks.

Hazel: “Ah. Some pretext.”

GM: “Always helpful, Hazel,” her dad half-teases.

Hazel: Hazel explains the situation with Lance’s class in full. “I suggested they make cards, but none took me up.” She pauses. “I… thought that was being considerate. Was it inappropriate to the situation?”

GM: Harvey chews over the question a bit, his lantern jaw jutting forward. “Hmm, no kiddo, I think that’s a very good suggestion. I guess most teens just don’t make cards any more. When I was young, we didn’t really have stores like Shop-Plus with every card imaginable. Kinda like how my mom used to sew all me and my sisters’ clothes by hand, but now most parents and kids just pick stuff off the rack.”

Hazel: Hazel hmphs. “The cards at Shop-Plus. What does it say about your affection for someone if you won’t even express it in your own words?”

GM: “Preaching to the choir, sport.”

Hazel: “If Lance’s students really cared about him, they’d have done something to show it.”

GM: “Don’t be too hard on them, Hazel. I think it says something about both the class and their teacher that they were worried about him. Also, you don’t know how many might privately express their sentiments in one way or another.” He coughs. “Speaking of which…”

Hazel: “If those sentiments aren’t expressed to the subject they are meaningless,” Hazel declares.

GM: “Well?” her dad asks meaningfully, his eyes glancing to her face for a moment before turning back to the rolling road. “Are you going to express those sentiments… to the ‘subject’?”

Hazel: Hazel blinks. “Um.” After a moment she manages, “Would that be socially appropriate? Because we were talking about his class. And the expression of sentiments in general. Rather than me specifically.”

GM: “More than appropriate.” Her dad watches the road intently before adding, “You know, he never got over you.”

Hazel: “We broke up.” Hazel’s tone is a bit stony.

GM: Her dad’s reply is quiet but full of conviction, maybe even desperation: “Just because you break up doesn’t mean you can’t patch things up.” His hand tightens subtly around the steering, his wedding band glinting in the sunlight.

Hazel: Patch things up.

Does… Dad…?

The most Hazel can manage at that is a flabbergasted look. She isn’t sure which relationship she’s referring to as she exclaims, “W-what?!”

GM: Harvey frowns. “I just mean… the future, the past… they aren’t written in granite. They… things can change. People can change, sometimes for the better. Sometimes we need to give people, even ourselves, a second chance.”

Hazel: “I… suppose I… theoretically agree with such,” Hazel flusteredly continues. Oh my god. He wants to get back together with Mom?!

Should she… encourage this? Dissuade it? She… she never did want the divorce, but…

This is all too much. Too sudden.

“Um. But that’s me. I easily become set in my ways.”

GM: Harvey shrugs. “Maybe more than others, pumpkin. But I recall at least one Christmas break when you swore you’d never move back to Witiko Falls. Something about the ninth or sixth circle of Hell freezing over.”

“And yet here you are,” he adds, grinning. “And I couldn’t be happier.”

Hazel: “Yes. I’m happy too,” Hazel stumbles. She feels as if she is juggling weights. “I just…” She gives an exasperated sigh and closes her eyes. “Why would he even want to break up, if he wants…” To get back together. She can’t say those words.

GM: Her dad gives her shoulder a light squeeze and a smile that is sincere, yet somehow sad. “Because, sport, sometimes guys are boneheads who do really stupid things only to realize what boneheads they are.”

Hazel: “People are so illogical,” Hazel half-dazedly mumbles.

GM: “Yeah,” her dad says, returning his focus to the road, “They sure are.”

Hazel: Hazel doesn’t have any idea what to say to that. She doesn’t want to get back together with Lance, not after all that’s happened, after the subject has been thrust on her this suddenly. But… she can’t tell her dad that. Not when he’s…

Or should she? She still has absolutely no clue what to make of it. For eight, going on nine now, years it’s been an immutable fact of her life. Her parents aren’t together. And now he just wants to… change that, all over again?

“It would be so much simpler if everyone definitively made up their minds.”

GM: Her dad laughs, “Don’t let Uncle Leo hear you say that.” And then he adds, in a more serious but still semi-light tone: “But if you want to see Lance, I mean just to express your sentiments, I can take you. To the hospital, that is.”

Hazel: Hazel is still off-balance trying to process everything, but she is grateful for the change of topic. “Why would you say as much there? Um, so far as Uncle Leo.”

GM: Harvey scratches his chin, then winces as he’s reminded of the bruise. “I don’t know, just that Leo sometimes goes on about how people or their brains are so… plastic? No, that can’t be the word, flexible or whatnot, and that is what makes our species so powerful, so amazing.” He laughs self-effacingly. “I’m not doing a good job explaining.”

Hazel: “No, adaptability is frequented touted as one of humanity’s most advantageous qualities. To an almost stereotypical degree, in science fiction. I would like to see a portrayal of an even more volatile and adaptive species that regards humans as ponderous and inflexible.” Hazel all-too gratefully, if oddly, steers the conversation to more familiar realms.

GM: “I don’t know about science fiction and all that, but here’s my stab at it in my own words: If everyone’s minds were made up, and stayed that way, then you couldn’t have a bonehead learn from his mistakes. He couldn’t stop being a bonehead, he couldn’t learn to stop making the mistake.” He nods to himself, as if he rather than Hazel finally understands Leo’s point—or at least how he interprets it.

Hazel: “That is natural selection at work,” Hazel admits. “Organisms with disadvantageous survival traits die off if successive generations are unable to shed them.”

GM: Now it is Harvey that is grappling with a reply—and instead shifts back to a subject he’s more familiar or comfortable with. “So do you want to see him? Lance, that is, at the hospital? Aunt Winnie says he’s stable. He’s still not conscious, and the docs aren’t sure whether there’s going to be permanent damage or how bad. But Winnie says that people in comas often hear what’s going on around them, that it’s sometimes even what brings them out, you know?”

Hazel: Now, once again, it is Hazel who grapples with words. A juggler on a unicycle, balancing the twin weights of her desire to avoid (should she?) Lance, and not to… interfere? with her dad’s… she’s not even sure if she should be balancing these weights or throwing them aside. Either course seems as if it might tempt disaster. “Um. Maybe I will send a card. Or email.”

GM: Harvey frowns. “Uh, you don’t send emails to someone in a coma, sport. People do send cards with flowers though.”

Hazel: “I say that because Aunt Winnie could read it, what’s after mine…” Hazel struggles to disentangle her thoughts and finally groans, “It’s too soon, Dad. I’ll send… a card. No flowers or… anything else.”

GM: Her dad starts to respond about how his sister wouldn’t snoop, but he stops upon hearing the real reason. He pats her knee. “Okay, kiddo, I understand. You take as much time as you need.”

Hazel: “I didn’t mean Aunt Winnie was going to snoop,” Hazel mumbles, “I meant that she could read the email I sent back. Read it to Lance, that is. Because he sent me one. That…”

She groans. She does not want to explain that too.

GM: Their conversation, perhaps to Hazel’s relief, ends as they pull up to the church. Lance’s truck and the emergency flares are gone, but the cones and police-tape still cordon off the crime-scene. In the sunlight, the blood-spots seem smaller, less visceral and menacing. Of course, the teeth, mangled body, and rose-red light of the cross are no longer present. Harvey walks his daughter and unofficial deputy up the stairs and into the church. Inside the Lutheran chapel, a children’s choir is practicing acapella. Their young voices fly through the air like winged sparrows fluttering against the stained glass and neo-gothic windows, as if trying to reach heaven itself.

“A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.”

Father and daughter look around for Reverend Ostergaard, but he is nowhere in sight.

Hazel: As she so often is, Hazel is unsure how to respond to the singing children, though for once it is not out of awkwardness. They are too young to knowingly consent to being here. Someone should lay out various arguments for and against God’s existence to the children and allow them to draw their own conclusions. Insomuch as they can, at their age. Hazel reluctantly has to admit to the idea’s impracticality. Or is it? She’s had little enough experience with kids.

“I hope he has not stood us up.”

GM: Harvey’s reply is obviated when a helpful deacon approaches and smiles. “Sheriff Bauman, we’re so glad you and your daughter could come. Father Ostergaard has been expecting you, but a parishioner just arrived in need of confession. It should not take long. Would you please wait just a moment?” He motions to the old pine pews.

Harvey, who took off his hat upon first crossing the threshold, expresses his gratitude, then motions to Hazel if she wishes to sit.

Hazel:Undersheriff Bauman,” Hazel corrects the deacon, perhaps more pointedly than she usually would. Between standing and sitting, however, Hazel elects to sit.

GM: Harvey sits in silence, his head bowed and eyes closed, leaving Hazel alone. The choir continues the old German hymn:

“And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us;
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us.”

Hazel: Hazel pulls out her cell phone and reads through old text messages. She could walk out to the truck and get a book from her backpack, but how long can a confession take?

GM: With little to no service out in Witiko Falls, coupled with Hazel’s asociality, the phone’s inbox does not take long to go through. Fortunately, they do not have to wait long. Her dad stirs her from staring at the near-blank screen. “C’mon, kiddo.”

“Father,” he says rising and shaking the priest’s hand, “Thank you for seeing us.” Behind them, the children’s choir goes over a complicated line with their conductor’s aid.

“Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill…”

“No, thank you, both of you for coming.” Father Ostergaard’s smile is warm, particularly towards Hazel. Without a winter coat, he is dressed in his collared cassock and white liturgical stole. His pectoral cross lays prominent upon his chest, an aged bronze thing that must be heavy around the neck.

Hazel: Hazel’s demeanor is less warm than the priest’s, but enough to avoid further rudeness. “You are welcome.” She’s not sure if that’s what she’s supposed to say here, but it is the standard response to ‘thank you.’

GM: “You said you found something, Father?” Harvey asks.

“Yes,” the priest replies, “Let me show you; it’s outside, in the cemetery.”

Hazel: Hazel moves to follow the priest.

GM: Harvey does likewise.

As they all exit the church through a side door, the soft shadows of fir and mountain envelope them. But rather than the typical chill that accompanies the darkness, there is a profound peace that envelopes the area. It feels as if the ubiquitous graven angels have eased a burden or pain that Hazel has carried for so long, that she forgot it was there until it is lifted.

Hazel: It’s nice enough for a church, Hazel grants, but the only places she truly feels at ease are her childhood homes at Sisyphus and Lacewood. Intellectually, she sees no reason to have an especially favorable reaction towards this place. Why, then, does her heart say otherwise—and why does she feel as if the tightly-wound knot in it is suddenly relaxed? Intellectually, she doesn’t like this at all. She wants knowledge, reason, not simple emotion. She’s not willing to take this on just faith.

I suppose that’s why I don’t come here every week.

GM: “I often walk these grounds, to pray and commune,” the priest says. "As the Pslamist said, ‘Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me: for my soul trusteth in thee: yea, in the shadow of thy wings will I make my refuge, until these calamities be overpast’.”

“And after this morning’s tribulations," the priest explains as he hikes up the slope, “My heart was heavy, and I sought solace.”

“In particular, I was pondering an old thorn in my side, which is the mystery that is man’s violence and cowardice. As a priest and as a solider, I have seen much of both—and not always by others’ hands.” He pauses, catching his breath and looking Hazel in the eye. “You told me I was holding back, child. I thought about that, and I confess that you were right.” He resumes leading them deeper into the cemetery, past moss-soften headstones and marble wings.

Hazel: “I was less than polite in my manner of speech,” Hazel grants.

GM: “For which you are freely forgiven, child, as I hope you in turn will forgive me,” he replies with a gentle smile.

Hazel: “That would seem only equitable,” she grants again. The memories inadvertently triggered by the priest seem more distant here.

GM: He continues explaining, “During the War, there was a time when my platoon became separated from our company. So many were lost —in flesh and in spirit. One morning, I awoke to a banging, breaking sound mingled with a tortured scream —the kind that Dante described of the souls being boiled in their own sins. I dashed forward, thinking that the Vietcong had found us, but instead witnessed one of my platoon-men bashing the metal barrel of his M-16 against the face of a small statue. Needing to relieve himself, he had stumbled onto a centuries-old Buddhist shrine, one that likely had remained undisturbed for generations. He had urinated upon Buddha’s face, but his anger and self-disgust were so great that he became lost, like a wild beast trying to eradicate all traces of his enemy, which at that moment, included himself.”

The priest pauses. “Last night, I heard a similar sound. In the darkness and still heavy with sleep, I told myself that I had merely imagined it, that the sounds which awoke me were simply dredged up older, darker memories that I have not learned to fully give up to God.”

Hazel: Hazel’s expression visibly sours at the mention of the soldier defacing the centuries-old historical artifact.

GM: “In the light of day, I now believe otherwise,” he adds, stepping aside to reveal a gravestone that has been cracked down its center.

“Metal on stone,” Harvey says, looking at his daughter.

“And a man’s scream,” the priest adds.

Hazel: Hazel’s expression turns thoughtful. She pauses to examine whose grave this is.

GM: Catherine Moore
1950-1969

As father and daughter kneel down to inspect the grave and surrounding scene, neither recalls the name or its significance. However, they do identify several clues. Two in particular tie the broken grave to the scene of Lance’s assault. Namely, the damage is consistent with a blow or blows caused by an aluminum bat. Secondly, there is a tiny splatter-smear of dark-red matter now dried, on the edge of the cracked headstone. Wetting his finger, touching the spot, and then smelling his pinky, her dad says, “I’d bet another waltz that this will match Lance’s blood type.” Based upon the evidence, it’s a bet Hazel is not likely to take—unless she wants to lose.

Hazel: “I don’t make bets unless I’m certain I’ll win, Daddy. And I’m certain I won’t here.”

GM: Harvey smiles, then rises, and thanks the priest.

Hazel: Hazel, though, is not finished. Her brow remains furrowed as she continues to methodically comb the area.

GM: The ground is dry, sheltered by the nearby trees, and leaves little tracks to be found. But the little that do remain, Hazel finds.

In particular, the displaced pattern of autumnal shed pine-leaves suggests that the assailant came purposefully to this grave. But once there, his resolve or certainty baulked. His movements were not as wild or large as the ones right after the attack, but the assailant clearly turned around, then seemed to kneel or fall to the ground. When he arose, he did so with violence, the heel imprints suggesting that this was when the man drove the bat into the headstone. The only other footprints, besides those of herself, her father’s, and the priest’s, lead off, as if the figure fled—though Hazel cannot say if he did so out of rage, self-disgust, fear, or some primal combination.

Hazel: Hazel’s thoughtful frown remains in place as she relates these observations. “It would appear the perpetrator had a crisis of conscience, however briefly and futilely.”

GM: “There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” the pastor quotes solemnly in agreement.

Hazel: “Catherine Moore. Do you have any idea who this woman may have been, Father?”

GM: He shakes his head. “I am sorry. She died before my pastoral assignment here.”

Hazel: She looks to her father. “Then that’s the next thing we need to find out. The assailant deliberately left and returned to her grave.”

GM: Her dad considers it as well. “I was still in high school. Her name sounds vaguely familiar, but I can’t say why.”

He looks at the dates. “Hmm, speaking of high school, it looks like that’s where we’ll have to go. Anything that old is kept in the library’s restricted archives. I could check with Ferg, but I doubt he’s gotten that far with his microfiching.”

Hazel: “Restricted if you’re not the librarian,” Hazel smiles. Her gaze returns to the priest. “Aquinas said, ‘Better to illuminate than merely to shine, to deliver others contemplated truths than merely to contemplate.’” She closes her eyes for a moment, breathing in the graveyard’s still peace. Many questions remain unanswered, but a narrative is beginning to take shape. “Thank you for your assistance, Father. I do not find succor in faith, but I do in knowledge, and you have provided it this day.”

GM: “Not all knowledge provides peace, child,” the reverend says gently, “But if I can provide either, I will give it freely to all who ask.”

Harvey taps his pen on his notepad. “Father, I do have one last question for you.”

The priest turns his bespectacled gaze on the lawman. “Yes?”

“Is there any reason you can think of that might explain why Lance would park outside the church so late at night, or so early in the morning?”

The priest sighs, then looks at the not-too distant church. “He is one of my parishioners.”

“Anything more specific?” her father probes.

“He often sought my counsel and services.”

Hazel: Uh. I… hope not about me?

GM: Her father pauses mid-writing. “What kind of counsel and services, Father?”

“I cannot say,” the mild-mannered man answers.

“Can’t or won’t?” the undersheriff asks, kindly but firmly.

Hazel: “These were under the seal of the confessional?”

GM: Reverend Ostergaard looks over at Hazel, his eyes saddened with the weight of a millstone. She sees that he wants to help; she even has a creeping feeling that the ‘counsel’ somehow relates to her.

“Yes, child.”

Harvey grimaces.

Hazel: “The counsel relates to me,” Hazel states frankly.

GM: “I cannot, will not break the seal,” the priest says, clearly torn by his desire to help but resolute in his duties. “But I can share that he retains fond feelings for you and would not wish to hurt you, child.”

Hazel: “I say as much for your benefit, Father, to assure you we are still on the right track. We’ll piece together the full picture one way or another.” Hazel grows quiet, though, upon hearing the reverend’s second statement.

GM: “Is there anything else you can tell us, Father, like perhaps the last time you spoke with him, prior to his attack?”

The priest nods, obviously relieved that this detail he can freely share. “Yes, it was just yesterday. He came shortly after the four o’clock service, alone and asking to see me, but I was leading a bible study group. I asked if we could speak later, and he agreed to return in three hours. He never did. This is relatively common with my parishioners, so I did not think anything of it.”

Hazel: Hazel frowns. She dislikes others not following through on commitments, however trifling.

GM: “And how would you describe his state when you spoke with him, that last time?”

Hazel: A potentially quite pertinent detail she should have thought to ask, but Hazel has always been better with scenes than witnesses.

GM: The pastor seems to reflect on the question. “He seemed eager to see me, troubled even, but not terribly so. He did seem relieved once we set a new time to meet.”

Hazel: “Perhaps it would benefit him—and us—for you to still do so when and if he regains consciousness in the hospital, Father.”

GM: The reverend nods, “I have already been to his bedside, but I will surely return when he awakens. I might suggest you do the same, child. It would mean a lot to him.”

Harvey looks at his daughter, coughs, flips closed his notepad, and puts it and his pen in his pocket.

Hazel: Hazel stiffens a bit at that. “I will consider it.”

GM: Her dad shakes the priest’s hand. “Thank you once again, Father. There may be a chance that the perpetrator will return, either to this grave or the road in front of the church. If you see anything, please call us right away. Do not engage him.”

The priest frowns.

Hazel: Hazel regards him speculatively. Her father’s advice is prudent.

GM: “Look, Father, once we catch this guy, you will have plenty of time to look after the welfare of his soul–behind bars. In the meantime, my job is to look after the welfare of this community, and that means keeping people safe —including and especially you, Father.”

“Very well, Sheriff,” the priest concedes. Reluctantly.

Her dad raises a hand to stop Hazel from correcting the priest at this moment. He then adds, “I’ll try to have my deputies patrol the area as much as possible.”

Hazel: At her dad’s signal, she (reluctantly) bites the correction back. “Thank you for your help once again, Father.”

GM: “Peace be unto you,” the priest says, kindly looking at Hazel before returning to his church.

Once the priest is gone, Harvey leads Hazel back to the road, “C’mon, there’s something else I want to show you.”

Hazel: Hazel follows after him, her curiosity piqued.

GM: “Remember how Father Ostergaard said he thought he saw tail-lights but wasn’t sure? Well look here. I came back to the scene once it was dark and did a look-over,” Harvey says as he points down to a section of the road, just down from where the attack occurred. Hazel spots it almost immediately. Tire-marks pealing away from the curb.

Hazel: “Those are tire-marks, all right.”

GM: “It looks like the car was traveling behind Lance’s truck, stopped, and then raced off down the road. I’m betting one of Lottie’s porkchop sandwiches that its taillights were the ones Father Ostergaard saw.” But there’s another clue that Hazel spots. A small oil-spot, one no more than a day old. It could have been from the ambulance, but it’s in the wrong location.

Hazel: “That’s a bet I’m well-prepared to take up, Daddy. On top of this oil spot. Well, take up if I were you.”

GM: He smiles. He pauses, then flips open his notebook and reviews his jottings. “So what do you think happened? What’s your take on all this?”

Hazel: Hazel furrows her brow. “We’ve established many of the particulars of the attack itself. What is less clear, however, is the motive. Ideally, Lance will wake up to give us a name and a face. In lieu of that, our next recourse is to follow up on the vandalized grave’s name. I want to know how this perpetrator thinks. What motivates him. Presses his buttons. The attack against Lance could have happened for any number of reasons, but his—or her—reaction to the grave points to a far more specific one.”

GM: Harvey taps his notepad like a metronome dictating the pace of his thoughts. “It’s a crime of passion.”

Hazel: Hazel nods. “What happened at the grave was not premeditated.”

GM: “You don’t take a baseball bat to somebody like that, then whack a tombstone into two for any other reason. It’s not like a gun. A bat is personal, primal. Especially when you keep swinging it again and again when a guy is down. As I said, it’s a primal act—and so the motive’s got to be primal too. So it’s not about money or anything less… what’s the term… visceral.”

Hazel: “I also wish to know how long the car was driving behind Lance’s truck. The attack certainly seems to have been an impassioned one, but was this the culmination of some long-simmering resentment? Was Lance a specific target or simply one of opportunity?”

GM: “Good question. What do you make of the passenger door?”

Hazel: “Though if Lance was a target of opportunity, rather than specific dislike, I suspect we would be dealing with a true psychopath, or at least highly unstable individual, whose antisocial behavior may well have been observed prior to now. In lieu of that, the dislike against Lance was personal.”

Hazel frowns in thought again at her father’s question. “Someone else closed that door, after Lance got out. He would have shut it properly.” The frown deepens. “I am uncertain why they would. Maybe Lance had to shut it in a hurry, but… the way the vehicle was parked suggests time was a non-issue.”

GM: “So you think he had a passenger? Someone he dropped off at the church—or who got out at the church after he parked?”

Hazel: “He got out in a hurry. He did not park in one. That’s likely when the altercation began—or at least finally occurred to him as dangerous.”

GM: “So there might be a third guy—or girl.”

Hazel: “Yes. How long was that car following him, I wonder?”

GM: He looks off. “You mentioned that Lance’s class was pretty banged up about him being missing. Do you recall if any of them seemed especially upset—or particularly not upset?”

Hazel: Hazel strains her memory, thinking back.

GM: Hazel’s memory proves sharp, however, her ability to correctly identify and interpret others’ emotions is no better now than earlier today—and that isn’t saying much.

Hazel: “No,” she sighs, “I can’t. You know I’ve never been much good at reading people, Daddy. Still, theorizing can only take us so far. Beyond looking into Catherine Moore, I would suggest we next investigate the places Lance frequented and the people he associated with. Find out if there was anyone with reason to dislike him. A standard enough police procedure, yes, but the motive here appears personal, as you have observed. So we should look into his personal affairs.” A slight grimace follows. “You should be the one to interview his father. I’ll handle things at school. I could well end up managing his class again.”

GM: “Yeah… I’ve been ‘handling’ Brody,” her father says sardonically as he opens Hazel’s door.

Hazel: “…successfully?” Hazel asks with another grimace as she gets inside.

GM: He shrugs, “As well as anyone can with a widower whose only son is in a coma and might not make it. But yes, better to leave him to me than to you.”

Hazel: “…yes. That does figure.”

GM: He shuts her door, then climbs in his. “I wonder if any of his students are baseball players…” he mumbles out loud as he hits the ignition, puts on his seatbelt, and pulls away.

Hazel: “That makes me wonder too. Makes me want to confirm even more.”

Hazel: Conversation eventually turns to less grim matters on the ride back to Red Louse Lane. “I was thinking some more about Beatrice, Daddy,” Hazel says. A grin is creeping over her features.

GM: “Hmmm,” her father says apprehensively.

Hazel: “Oh, I’m not taking back that apology. I fully intend to keep it and honor it. That’s how I’m going to destroy her.”

GM: “Uh…”

Hazel: “You remember in seventh grade, that girl Mackenzie, who made fun of how I spoke, how I dressed? And you and Mom said I should just ignore her? Because the more upset I got, the more ammunition I’d just be giving her?”

GM: “Well, I told you to pop her once. Hard. Mom told you to ignore her.”

Hazel: “Making your reversal of stances all the more ironic now.”

GM: “School yard scraps are quite different from slugging an old lady, sport.”

Hazel: “But no, Mom’s way was better. The only thing you can’t do is let them ignore you.

GM: “What?”

Hazel: “I’m not going to be an invisible presence in her life at all. I’m going to mow my lawn when I get home, just like I told her. I’m going to knock on her door when I’m done, and ask if she could please inspect it.”

GM: “Well… that sounds… good,” her dad says, tentatively.

Hazel: “Just to be sure if I’m not violating any ordinances.” The mania in Hazel’s eyes is only growing brighter.

GM: And it is that look, rather than her words, which seems to be causing Harvey so much fret.

Hazel: “I’m going to leave a gift basket on her doorstep the next day, thanking her for her assistance. I’m going to find out her birthday, and leave her a cake on that occasion too.”

GM: “So you’re going to kill her with kindness?” her dad asks apprehensively. "But not literally.”

“Right?"

Hazel: Hazel bursts out laughing maniacally. “Oh, Daddy, don’t you see it. I am going to be a perfect neighbor. I am going to give her NOTHING to complain about. And when she does complain, I’ll sit there, happily listen to it all, and thank her so much for her time and assistance. Before I ask if there’s anything else I can do to be a better neighbor.”

GM: “That… sounds… good? Yes?” It’s not clear whether he’s asking her or himself.

Hazel: The look on Hazel’s face is likely little different from the one on Attila’s own when he gained his pretext to invade the Western Empire. “Daddy. I am going to give her NOTHING to complain about. I can’t think of a more cruel thing I could possibly do.”

GM: “Uh… or it could make her… happy?”

Hazel: “It’s what she gets off on. Take it away, and she’ll WILT. No, she doesn’t have the capacity to be happy,” Hazel states dismissively.

GM: Harvey looks down the road and the fast-approaching adjacent houses of his daughter and Mrs. Worwood. “This is where I need your mother,” he mumbles to himself.

Hazel: “‘Therefore the skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field,’” Hazel quotes.

“She wants to lean on those mayoral connections? Good luck. What’s she going to do, complain that I’m being too nice? ‘Therefore the clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him.’”

GM: Harvey looks at his daughter with more than an apprehensive eye. “Handles in all the wrong places.”

Hazel: That momentarily breaks Hazel’s stride. “Sorry?”

GM: “Uh, nothing, just something… oh, heh, speaking of your mom, I wanted to… ask you something.”

Hazel: “Uh, that was Sun Tzu, Daddy. You might actually like his book. It’s very short and applicable to police work.” She pauses at his next remark. “Well, I’m… having dinner with her tonight. What’s that?”

GM: He frowns momentarily, then says as he pulls into her driveway, “So, I told her about Lance, and I take it you told her that you stayed over.”

Hazel: “Yes. I don’t like playing games keeping secrets from each of you,” she states frankly.

GM: “No, right, I mean, because there’s nothing wrong with you coming over.”

Hazel: “And because I’m not keeping hers, yes, she wasn’t happy.”

GM: “Oh, that’s not a secret,” he says looking at the windshield. “She called me.”

Hazel: Wait. Is he saying I can’t stay over anymore, because he wants to get in good with Mom? Hazel frowns. That could prove troublesome, if it takes her too much longer to vanquish her nocturnal visitor. Then again, she could just rent a hotel room. She has the money, even if she’s loath to spend it. But periodically alternating locations would be even better. That gives her… tomorrow and one more day to make all her preparations before she has to face this thing, before she’s staying at the same place more than once. Oh well. Her visitor surely won’t be completely passive either, simply leaving her alone if she doesn’t sleep at the Sweeney house. Or at least, that’s an assumption it’s safer to work off from.

GM: “So… I was wondering, did you tell mom about the car crash and…”

Hazel: “Oh. You mean…” Hazel shakes her head.

GM: “Yeah.” He sighs with evident relief.

Hazel: “That’s… a secret from everyone, Daddy. Not simply her.”

GM: He chew on his lip and nods. “Uncle Leo quotes this saint, I think Francis or Augustine, who said that we should never use the truth to hurt people, or something like that.”

Hazel: “Augustine of Hippo had a… related one. ‘The truth is like a lion; you don’t have to defend it. Let it loose; it will defend itself.’ That said, some lions are best left caged. They are naturally inclined to maul people.”

GM: “Yes,” he quickly agrees. “Thanks,” he says finally turning to face his daughter. “So do you want me to help get the mower started?”

Hazel: Hazel is thankful for the change of topic. There’s a lion she’s keeping caged from him, after all, and every yowl from its cage breaks her heart. She’s always been able to trust him, rely on him for anything…

“That sounds great, Daddy,” she smiles.

GM: “It’s what I’m here for,” he says with his own heart-deep grin.

Kurt: Mind’s Eye


GM: Kurt’s room doesn’t even have his name on the door; a simple blue curtain partitions the room, and labored breathing comes from the outline of a shape in the bed on the other side. Kurt awakens, his head slightly propped up against a pair of pillows with yellow stains. A pulley sling holds up his leg cast, and an intravenous tube snakes into his arm. The bedside table holds a metal sample bowl full of thick sputum as well as a tray with a tuna salad sandwich minus a single bite. The white-painted walls are peeling, and the smell of sweat and rubbing alcohol lingers in the air. Inside his skull, though, Kurt feels like drain-o is sloshing around in his cranial fluid, spiked with a couple of Xanax thrown in for good measure.

Kurt: What the hell happened? The question reverberates within Kurt’s slosh-filled brain. “Where am I?” he asks aloud to nobody in particular, looking at the shadowy figure behind his curtain. He tries to get up, inspecting the tube alongside his arm. He considers pulling it out.

GM: The curtained-off figure, stirs, but does not reply. However, Kurt’s plaintive inquiry draws the attention of someone outside the hall. The clicking of shoes on once-waxed linoleum.

A doctor walks into the room. He’s dressed in antiseptic white and carries a menacingly large hypodermic needle. His poise is reminiscent of a wax figure. He looks down upon his patient with withering confidence and silent condescension. His eyes are the same brown as cigarette burns. His thin hair matches the stained hospital pillows. His lips are the pink you imagine raw flesh must be, like his mouth is just a gash cut in his face so he can talk through it. His manicured fingers remind one that he makes surgeon money—and that he frequently holds both life and death in his hands. His demeanor is of one well-acquainted to playing god.

doctor.png

Kurt: “Um,” Kurt dawdles, eyes going to straight to the needle, looking up at the strange doctor with a look of bewilderment and the slightest bit of fear. “Hello?”

GM: The doctor retrieves a thin flashlight from his surgeon’s apron and flashes it in Kurt’s eyes. He does not lower the hypodermic needle.

Kurt: Kurt recoils at the sudden light being aimed at his eyes, blinking rapidly and pulling his head away. “Sorry, sir–,” Kurt mumbles, “–but can you tell me where I am?” He still feels dazed and confused. This is all happening a little too quickly; he genuinely wants answers to what happened.

GM: The doctor clicks off the flashlight and stows it, only to click on a voice recorder. “P—M1AE—92.08.03. Pupillary response assessed. Miosis consistent with dose response curves. Mental status exam to commence. Subject lacks sufficient cognitive ability to discern his location.” The doctor, still recording and holding the needle, poses Kurt several questions. “What to your best understanding is the current time and date? Please identify yourself, including your given and surname.”

Kurt: “What?” he asks, bewildered. “Kurt… Joseph… Crawford?” he says rather tentatively.

GM: The doctor exhales and looks away for a second, as if he’s thinking how to boil his thoughts down into something Kurt can understand. “Please identify the current time and date to the best of your ability.”

Kurt: “The seventh?”

GM: “Please be more specific.”

Kurt: “The seventh of October?”

GM: “Of what year?” the doctor asks in a tone that is simply not exasperated because his expectations are so low.

Kurt: “1998.” Kurt’s facial expression turns a little sour at the doctor’s bedside manner; nonetheless, he tries his best to keep a lid on his annoyance.

GM: “And your best approximation of the current time?”

Kurt: Kurt recalls the half-eaten sandwich, so make a guess that it’s sometime in the afternoon. “Maybe 3 o’clock in the afternoon?” Kurt then adds rather quickly, “Is it all right if I call my mother?”

GM: The doctor does not answer his ‘subject’, but instead speaks into the audio recorder. “Deficits remain in subject’s temporal orientation. Ego orientation appears intact…. if under-developed. Potential facile or oedipal attachment to maternal figure. Final orientation to commence.”

The doctor returns his cigarette-burn eyes to Kurt. “Why are you here?” He pauses for a moment, as if once again trying to recalibrate his question for his patient’s ‘deficits’. “What events led to you being here?”

Kurt: “I was in an accident.” His voice is deadpan. Is this guy for real?

GM: “Please be more specific.” A nurse starts to walk in the room, perhaps to check on Kurt or his ‘roommate’, but then sharply turns around and exits when she spots the doctor.

Kurt: Kurt spots the nurse through his peripheral vision. “I was in a car accident,” he answers through gritted teeth. “Do you mind if I call my mother now? I was meant to be picking her up from work, so I want to make sure she’s all right and knows where I am, okay?” Kurt adds quickly, “Actually, what hospital am I at, anyway?”

GM: The doctor does not sigh with exasperation, likely because the gesture would indicate an emotional or human response. Instead, his expression takes on a waxy patience as he waits for Kurt to finish his questions. Then, he answers with all the cold clinical enthusiasm of turning patients over to prevent bedsores:

“Mrs. Crawford has been notified of your present situation. You will be approved for visitors pending the successful completion of your exam. You are currently in Mount Pelion General Hospital. Now, please describe in detail everything you recall of the events leading up to, during, and immediately after the car accident.”

Kurt: Kurt sighs in relief, glad to know that his mother’s been notified. “Thank you, doctor.” He then goes on to describe the situation leading up to his hospital stay insofar as he can remember. Kurt even includes the sound of screaming he heard before passing out, looking a little worried as he recounts that particular detail. He omits the sight of the elk with a human body flayed on its antlers—that was just insane, right?

GM: The waxy doctor regards Kurt for while, as if he’s measuring Kurt’s pupillary and respiration rate. “So upon putting considerable strain upon your multi-fractured foot, you experienced pain sufficient to induce syncope. Congruent to these events, you recall hearing screaming. How certain are you that this scream came from yourself versus someone else, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being absolutely sure and 10 being absolutely unsure?”

Kurt: Kurt looks a little unsure, half-wondering if maybe it was his screams that he heard. “Maybe a five, everything happened pretty fast.” Kurt reflexively looks downward at his foot with a disappointed face. Fuck, he thinks, what about basketball?

GM: The doctor speaks into the recorder, “Commencing trial to test subject’s responsivity to reality testing.” Despite hearing such an ominous pronouncement, Kurt may feel relief at the sight of the doctor stowing his needle.

Kurt: Kurt smiles in relief, glad to finally be rid of seeing that thing.

GM: The doctor, recorder still in hand, takes his now free hand and presses down on Kurt’s foot. His agonizingly tender, broken foot.

Kurt: Kurt tries to hold back the yelp of surprise; his resolve quickly buckles however, losing all composure as he screams in agony, the pain searing from his broken foot. His eyes are scrunched tightly as he barely holds back actual tears.

GM: The doctor waits till Kurt’s volume decreases to a sufficient level, then asks, “Now was the screaming you heard like that, or was it more like–” his hand shifts to another spot, then stabs down, “–this?”

Kurt: Kurt’s eyes widen in surprise; the pain doesn’t stop any time soon. He looks at the doctor with a smoldering contempt for a split second, but his eyes quickly roll back into the back of his head as another scream escapes his mouth, tears running down his freshly blushed cheeks. “What the fuck are you doing?” he wails, barely keeping it together.

GM: The doctor’s expression displays no trace of sadism or concern. Instead, he simply turns to Kurt and repeats his earlier question: “How certain are you now that the post-crash scream came from yourself versus someone else, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being absolutely sure and 10 being absolutely unsure?”

Kurt: “Eight!” he yelps, looking desperately to appease the doctor. “I am more sure it wasn’t me screaming!”

GM: For the first time, the doctor’s face takes on a human expression. A frown. Slowly, he holds up recorder and says, “Subject’s responsivity to reality testing is neuroatypical. Rule-out contusion to prefrontal cortex. Recommended treatment: Administer pre-serum sedative and follow-up injection. Induce regimen of paralysis to facilitate chemical saturation and modified equilibrium, then re-administer mental status exam and reality resting. Continue dosage titration under desired symptomology manifests. If necessary, implement more invasive procedures if subject proves unresponsive to the aforementioned treatment plan.”

The doctor then turns off his recorder, placing it in his surgeon’s apron. He takes out a smaller needle and vial of… something. “Your injuries are quite severe. I am about to administer a sedative that will allow you to better rest and recover. There is no need to move.”

Kurt: “Please don’t,” Kurt says meekly, not really trying to move away, too tired to fight. He looks up with a frightened, confused expression.

GM: “There is no need to resist. You are in capable hands.”

Kurt: “Okay,” Kurt replies, not exactly answering in agreement—more acceptance of his fate.

GM: Seeing Kurt’s submission, the doctor smiles. It is not comforting. The needles plunges into Kurt’s hip, and the plunger depresses. Kurt feels the drug hit his system like a warm wet towel spreading through his veins. His limbs and breathing become heavy and yet somehow light as a feather… and the doctor somehow starts shrinking… fading away… fading… fading to black…

…fading to nothingness… and beyond.

Kurt’s psyche drifts free of his body, and so liberated… he hears… music. As it filters through and in his unmoored subconscious, he hears his father’s voice. “Light…light…light…"

“Let there be light…”

The music shifts and condenses like the infinite face of God descended into a tabernacle of flesh so it can be beheld by the finite. And in that surreal epiphany, Kurt’s mind comprehends the music that is not music is the Doors._ The music that is not music that is the Doors that is not the Doors systematically tears down and blasts away all psychological barriers. Mr. Densmore who is not Mr. Densmore provides the throbbing rhythms and the spiritual impetus to propel Kurt from his body, from the hospital itself, launching him into an inner flight which Mr. Krieger who is not Mr. Krieger sustains with bittersweet harmony; Mr. Manzarek who is not Mr. Manzarek entices Kurt into labyrinthine complexities of abstraction and leaves him, abandoned, until the powerful voice of Mr. Morrison who is not Mr. Morrison guides, tempts, and saves him back to the illusion of the here and now.

Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend, the end
Of our elaborate plans, the end


Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
I’ll never look into your eyes… again


Can you picture what will be
So limitless and free
Desperately in need… of some… stranger’s hand
In a… desperate land


Lost in a Roman…wilderness of pain
And all the children are insane
All the children are insane
Waiting for the summer rain, yeah


There’s danger on the edge of town
Ride the King’s highway, baby
Weird scenes inside the gold mine
Ride the highway west, baby


Ride the wave, ride the wave
To the cave, the ancient cave, baby
The wave is long, seven miles
Ride the wave… he’s old, and his skin is cold


The killer awoke before dawn, he put his boots on
He took a face from the ancient gallery
And he walked on down the hall
He went into the room where his sister lived, and… then he
Paid a visit to his brother, and then he
He walked on down the hall, and
And he came to a door… and he looked inside
Father, yes son, I want to kill you
Mother… I want to… fuck you


C’mon baby, take a chance with us
C’mon baby, take a chance with us
C’mon baby, take a chance with us
And meet me at the back of the blue bus
Doin’ a blue rock
On a blue bus
Doin’ a blue rock
C’mon, yeah


This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend, the end


It hurts to set you free
But you’ll never follow me
The end of laughter and soft lies
The end of nights we tried to die


Kurt is swept along the prolonged apocalyptic journey through the dark underworld of the post-modem unconscious, till the climax of a solemn prose-poem laying bare the Oedipal savagery of the primal libido.

“This is the end.”

And as music that is not music comes to an end that is not an end, Kurt hears it. Laughter. And a question. Do you like pranks? The question is the color of six and umami. It dissolves into Kurt’s psyche like the sound of chartreuse and Friday. Do y0U 1iK3 prAnK5?

Kurt: Motherfucker, Kurt swears within the recesses of his own dented psyche, swirling, intangible questions rocking his mind. Who doesn’t like a good prank?

GM: “HaHAHAhahaHAHAHAHhahaHaHAhAAAhahaHAHAHhahhahaHaHa
hAAAhahaHAHAHhAAhahaHaHaHAHAhahaHAHAHAHhaHaHaHAhAAAhaha
HAhahaHAHAHAHhahaHaHAhAAAhahaHAHAHhahhahaHaHaHAHAhahaHA
ahaHAHAHhahhahaHaHaHAHAhahaHAHAHAHhahaHaHAhAAAhahaHAhAh
HAHAHAHhahaHaHAhAAAhahaHAHAHhahhahaHaHaHAHAhahaHAHAHAH
AHhahhahaHaHaHAHAhahaHAHAHAHhahaHaHAhAAAhahaHAHAHhahhah
HAHAhahaHAHAHAHhahaHaHAhAAAhahaHAHAHhhahahahAaAHhahaHaa”

Kurt: Blissfully unfeeling, unaware. Aware but not aware. Kurt’s mind joins the laughter. Is it his laughter? Is it his screaming?

GM: Is there a difference?

Kurt: No.

GM: A blue bus pulls up. Kurt is driving it. He looks back and sees him looking back at himself from the back of the blue bus. Kurt who is not Kurt who is Kurt says to Kurt who is Kurt who is not Kurt: “Let’s play a prank.”

Kurt: Kurt who is Kurt who is not Kurt replies, “What kind of prank?” A grin spreads across his face as he tilts his head questioningly.

GM: The Kurts answer each other: “The best kind.”

The not-Kurts do not answer. Instead they sing:

This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend, the end
Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
I’ll never look into your eyes… again
Can you picture what will be
So limitless and free
Desperately in need… of some… stranger’s hand
In a… desperate land
Lost in a Roman… wilderness of pain
And all the children are insane
All the children are insane
Waiting for the summer rain, yeah


The blue bus is full of Kurts and not-Kurts, together and alone, singing as the blue bus rides the highway. The highway is a white line in the dead of night. The highway is a white web over and above and under the black abyss.

All the children are insane

The highway is a white flat-line on a black monitor.

This is the end

The highway is a flat-line that rides for seven miles. Seven miles—and then swerves. Curves. And spells.

All the children are insane

“HaHAHAhahaHAHAHAHhahaHaHAhAAAhahaHAHAHhahhahaHaHaHAHAha
hAAAhahaHAHAHhAAhahaHaHaHAHAhahaHAHAHAHhaHaHaHAhAAAhahaH
HAhahaHAHAHAHhahaHaHAhAAAhahaHAHAHhahhahaHaHaHAHAhahaHAH
ahaHAHAHhahhahaHaHaHAHAhahaHAHAHAHhahaHaHAhAAAhahaHAHAHh
HAHAHAHhahaHaHAhAAAhahaHAHAHhahhahaHaHaHAHAhahaHAHAHAHha
AHhahhahaHaHaHAHAhahaHAHAHAHhahaHaHAhAAAhahaHAHAHhahhahaH
HAHAhahaHAHAHAHhahaHaHAhAAAhahaHAHAHhhahahahahaAHhahaHaHA”

The laughter tears free of Kurt’s formerly comatose body. His once-dead body. He feels the stained crustiness of his pillows. The paddle-burns on his chest. He smells the sweat of fear and antiseptics. He hears his mother crying. He sees her look up, her tear-ravaged face trying to comprehend what she is hearing, what she is seeing. And then, she stops. She stops trying to comprehend and simply accepts. And the tears flow anew—but these are new tears. These are tears of joy. Kurt feels his mother’s arms around him, the hot, stinging wetness of her tears. “My son…” she sobs. “My baby boy…”

He watches as his sister walks back in the room, two paper cups filled with vending machine coffee in her hands. Amy stops in her tracks and drops the cups. She doesn’t even flinch as the steaming coffee splatters and stains her jeans and shoes. “No fucking way…” she exclaims in terrible awe and incomprehension. “No no no, no fucking way…”

Kurt: “Ugghhhh….” It’s the only feeble noise Kurt can make in his condition. It’s all he can manage at the moment, trying his best to let his mother and sister know that he is a-ok.

GM: Kurt’s senses ever-so often rock and rattle like a ferris-wheel left out in a dying storm. His mother’s hands, rough from hard scrubbing and harder chemicals, reach out to gently cup her son’s capillary-burst, splotchy face.

“Kurt…” Her voice is still raw from tears. “Kurt… my baby… my son…”

“You’re… alive.”

Her lasts words have a fragile joy, as if afraid that by speaking them, a more brutal reality might break her reverie. She catches his eyes with hers. The latter are glassy and red with tears, framed by a creased, worn-out, face prematurely aged by stress, exhaustion, and loss. Her reddish-blonde hair has the luster of straw being burnt at sunset. She wears jeans, beat-up tennis shoes, and a plain sweater with old stains from spaghetti, grease, or some other substance that can be washed a thousand times, but never fully erased. She wears neither make-up nor jewelry, as the former is a luxury the Crawfords can’t afford to buy, while the latter is one they can’t afford to not sell.

“Kurt… it’s me… I’m here…”

Arlene.png

Kurt: “Ma!” Kurt realizes aloud, holding his mother’s ever-loving gaze. He feels suddenly safe upon her maternal presence and weakly smiles at her touch. Emotions well up to the forefront of Kurt’s mind. Tears form in the corners of his eyes. “Thank God! I wanted to call you, but the doctor wouldn’t let me.” His voice sounds hoarse and his body aches.

GM: Arlene strokes Kurt’s hair with her calloused fingers. “It’s okay, I’m here now… you–”

“You were fucking dead!” Amy interrupts. Kurt’s older sister still stands in the doorway, her dark eyes wide with shock and disbelief, her face blanched, making her red hair seem all the more livid. Tonight, the short, flat-chested, no-hipped young woman wears a pair of wide-flaring jeans, a braided belt, and baggy white T-shirt she probably borrowed from Rick. The resultant low-scooped neckline partially shows off her tattoo of Barad-dûr and the Eye of Sauron. However, it’s her non-inked eyes that seem to bore into Kurt’s with a fiery heat. “What the hell, mom?!”

Amy.jpg

“Amy!” Arlene says, snapping back at her eldest with a half-wounded, half-scolding tone.

Kurt: Kurt’s gaze turns to Amy. He frowns at her a little; she could at least show a little bit of sympathy for a change.

GM: Amy doesn’t back down. “Am I the only one who hasn’t lost their god-damned mind! Mom, we saw the doctors go full DEFCON, we heard them drilling in his head, hitting him with the paddles again and again and again, and then–” she holds the back of her hand to her face, her eyes starting to grow glassy, “–and then the flat-line, that god-fucking awful sound. It went on forever—like they didn’t even have the decency to face us or the basic courtesy of shutting the damn machine off, just letting that fucking tone go on and on and on.”

Arlene starts crying, shaking her head as if trying to dislodge the memories. She goes to say something, but Amy barrels right over her. “And then, then they told us what we already knew… and then, then they left us… with a body. A fucking cold body!! A god-damned dead body!!!”

“Oh shit,” she says, unable to hold back the tears, sliding against the doorway and down to the floor. “H-how…” she gapes, overcome by it all.

Arlene doesn’t let go of her son. Her living son. “It doesn’t matter,” she says to Amy, to Kurt, to herself. “None of that matters. I don’t care. Kurt’s with us—that’s all that matters.”

Kurt: Kurt’s annoyance at his sister quickly dissipates and a knot forms in his stomach as he sees her break down, looking just as vulnerable as when their father got sick. “I’m sorry,” is all he can choke out, unsure what to say. “I am okay now, I promise.” He isn’t really talking to either his mother or sister, just as a general statement, and despite feeling like utter shit.

Holy shit! he thinks to himself, I almost died!

GM: As Kurt looks down at his sister half-sprawled on the hospital floor, the motion causes a nauseating wave and slight burning, buzzing in his head. He hears a ‘pop’ and then something that sounds like… laughter. But it feel like screaming.

Arlene turns around, her maternal instincts blaring. “Baby, are you okay?”

The absurdity of the question snaps Amy back into spitfire hell-raising mode. “Of course he’s not fucking OKAY!!!”

“Stop it, Amy!” their mother snaps. “Can’t you see you’re upsetting Kurt!”

Kurt: “It’s okay!” he says a little strenuously, albeit still meek in volume, in an attempt to take control of and calm the situation. “I am fine, ma, I am not upset,” he says in answer to his mother’s earlier question. He then looks at Amy, trying his best to look her in the eyes. “I promise I am fine now, Amy. You don’t need to cry any more. I am alive.”

What is that buzzing?

GM: Kurt’s assurances to his health fall on deaf ears as blood starts leaking from his nose—and his cranial catheter squirts violently over his mother.

Kurt: “Fuck!” Kurt swears, feeling suddenly more woozy, feeling abashed by the zemblanity of the moment. “Can I get a tissue, please?”

GM: His mother searches frantically for something, anything. She yells back to Amy, “Get the doctor!”

Kurt: Kurt groans inwardly, the buzzing in his head getting stronger. He tries his best to look as composed, all right as he can manage in his state—the blood is not helpful. “I promise I am all right, ma,” Kurt tries to say once again, knowing full-well that his words are falling on deaf ears now.

GM: Amy lets off another stream of curses—though this time they don’t seem necessarily directed at Kurt of their mom, as much as about them. Alerted by present and recent yelling, Mount Pelion’s staff finally respond to the altered status of ‘Subject P—M1AE—92.08.03.’ They rush down the hallway like the Kelpies’ offensive line, save for their age and medical apparel and trailing equipment. For Kurt, the next few moments aren’t so much a blur but a cacophony of images and sounds seemingly stuck into a blender, chugged, and then vomited all over the present.

Sometime as the medical staff barge in, Kurt thinks he hears or sees his mom hurl herself to her knees and begins to violently pray, “Oh Lord, forgive me for doubting!! Please, Lord, don’t take him away!” Which is particularly bizarre since she gave up praying years ago. He thinks he sees Amy assaulting a nurse of a doctor, kicking the former and attempting to strangle the latter with his own stethoscope. Rick appears, and half-drags, half-hauls Amy out like a defective crate fresh off the delivery truck.

Orderlies grab Kurt, pin him down with hairy-knuckled fists, then restrain him with thick leather straps. The doctor tries to administer a sedative, but is forced to abort his plan in order to undo Amy’s stethoscope garrote. The orderlies try to forcibly remove Kurt’s mother, and somewhere in the process, the curtain is torn down. It’s a small girl squatting on an obese man’s naked belly. She turns to regard Kurt with a tilted head. Slowly, she opens her eyelids, and swarms of flies pour from her empty sockets.

Kurt: Kurt’s eyes widen and all he can let out is a soul-wrenching scream. The buzzing… the buzzing…

GM: The flies continue to pour out of the child’s eyes, swiftly, horrifically filling the room with a swarm that blacks out the buzzing, fluorescent ceiling lights. Their own buzzing drowns out the screams and yells of the medical staff and his family. But the buzzing… it becomes something else. There is a static, a rhythm, a song.

Can you picture what will be, so limitless and free
Desperately in need, of some, stranger’s hand
In a, desperate land
Can you picture what will be, so limitless and free


And in that moment, Kurt’s mind reaches outward—and hears its own echo from the future that is already his past. Time becomes a clear glass marble that rolls and rolls, but has neither beginning nor end, neither backwards nor forwards. Where once was opacity is… clarity. In his life, there had been prior moments like these. Flashes of insight, waves of deja vu. Glimpses at the glass marble. But not like this. Never like this. The flies vanish like a torn away curtain.

All the children are insane

Alerted by the present and recent yelling, Mount Pelion’s staff finally respond to the altered status of ‘Subject P—M1AE—92.08.03.’ They rush down the hallway like the Kelpie’s offensive line, save for their age, medical apparel, and trailing equipment. But this time, the next now-past few moments are neither a blur nor a cacophony of images and sounds seemingly stuck into a blender, chugged, and then vomited all over the present.

Now, the glass marble is clear. He knows where the needle will come-did come. He knows that it will not-did not sedate him. He knows where his mother will kneel-did kneel in manic prayer. He knows where and how his sister will trip-did trip the orderly. He knows how his sister will attack-did attack the doctor with his own stethoscope—and how Rick will haul-did haul her away. He knows how the orderlies will grab-did grab him and will strap-did strap him down. He knows where the orderlies will rip-did rip the curtain dividing the room. And with that knowledge comes the ability to not only see through the rolling marble, but to potentially change its path.

Kurt: Kurt’s eyes roll into the back of his head, trying and failing to remain awake, half-aware that his lips are moving on their own. His hearing is a whirling cacophony of flies, buzzing, and the rhythm of his heart. He can barely hear anything else; everything else feels like Kurt is listening to things underwater. There are bubbles, echoes of voices, going on around him. He tries to focus his eyes, stop them rolling back into his head, focus on what’s real and isn’t real. He tries to will his mind to stop buzzing and for his hearing to return to normal. What is going on? he half-screams inside his own head, fearing for his own sanity and health.

GM: Distantly he hears his mother and sister scream. The orderlies, doctor, and nurse withdraw back in fear. Even his own recursive mind starts to peel away from itself. The curtains tears free, revealing the youth on the bed. The swarm of defeating black flies pour again—but this time, he sees that behind the curtain was just a mirror, and that it’s his own face bursting with insects. And this time everyone sees them. Arlene, Amy, Rick, and the medical staff all scream, vomit, writhe, and claw at the air and their own faces.

That’s when the lights shatter.

From the darkness, lurid green emergency lights kick on with epileptic intensity.

And that’s when the madness really begins.

An atonal hum fills the air. It squeezes into Kurt’s pores, with a pressure akin to a deep-sea diver suddenly breaking the surface of an ocean. Those around him, including his sister and mother, begin to froth at the mouth and convulse. The hum intensifies, in a nauseating syncopation with the violent green emergency lights. The mirror begins to ripple like a mercurial lake ripping with a single stone-throw. The hum intensifies. Blood begins to leak from the nostrils and ears of his family and the nearby medical staff. The mirror begins to ripple like a lake in a rainstorm, until it finally cannot endure the abuse and shatters everywhere. As the glass shards cut and slash the still-convulsing, bleeding occupants of the room, Kurt sees his reflection still staring back at him.

Kurt: Kurt stares back; his eyes are unwavering. This is insane, too insane, he thinks, but why does it feel all too real?

“What is happening?” he asks aloud.

GM: Kurt’s own seemingly living reflection is horrible to look at, even in the bleak emergency lights. Without glasses, Kurt’s ‘other’ face is blurry like everything else, but he can still see the seeping head bandages, a leaking cranial catheter, terrible splotches of yellow, purple skin, and dark blood vessels snaking through his neck and face. His hospital gown has been cut half-way down his chest, revealing the bruises and burns of repeated paddle shocks. Unlike his bound self, his ‘reflection’ hobbles unrestrained save for his identical leg cast.

The living mirror looks at Kurt with the deepest recesses of loathing. “What is happening?” the self that is not self mimics, but it does so with a mocking, whinny tone. The figure picks up a broken shard of glass, inspecting its reflection and the razor-sharp edge. His next words are spit with hot venom. “That’s your problem—always whining about what’s happening—instead of making things happen. Just like mom, always the victim, always taking it lying down. Too afraid to stand up and dish it back.” As if to illustrate his point, the Kurt who is not Kurt stomps on Arlene’s still-convulsing body with his one good foot. Hard.

“Quit crying, bitch!”

Down the hall, alarms sound, calling for the wing’s evacuation.

“Code Goldsmith Imago. All personnel are to immediately evacuate,” the intercom blares.

“Code Goldsmith Imago. All personnel are to immediately evacuate…”

Kurt: Kurt’s eyes widen at the sudden attack on his mother, putting aside his fear for a moment as he spits back in rage. “Fuck off!” he yells almost-unintelligibly. “Don’t you fucking dare hurt my mother!” His body quakes in rage, fear, pain, and confusion.

What is happening? he continues to think, Have I gone insane? Why does everything seem so real? Kurt tries to fight off his restraints, trying to free himself of his bindings.

GM: His not-self turns, anger painted in the harsh green light. “Or what?! What are you fucking going to do you sniveling COWARD?!” The Kurt which is not Kurt takes the blade-like glass shard and starts hobbling towards the strap-restrained Kurt. The not-Kurt winces with pain, but his face is otherwise a mask of black hatred and rage.

Kurt: Kurt’s movements become more frantic as the thing masquerading as him turns a murderous gaze his way. “What do you want from me?” he growls in fear and self-loathing. His head thumps, his veins pump with adrenaline—and in the midst of Kurt’s desperate attempt to free himself he manages to pull his right arm free from the strap binding his wrist down.

GM: Kurt doesn’t so much as pull his arm free of the hospital bed as much as his adrenaline-spiked bicep rips the metal bar from the bed. Already hobbling over a field of convulsing bodies, Kurt’s not-self trips, seemingly shocked by the preternaturally strength from such a mundane, small, and injured body. The not-self screams in pain, but snarls through the worst of it, and starts to pull himself up, using the bottom ‘head-board’. The glass shard emerges, still gripped, but now half-embedded in the not-self’s hand. Blood leaks down the cruel edge.

Kurt: A cold, animalistic impulse suddenly drives Kurt through this ordeal; the dread causing Kurt to lunge violently forward, throwing the broken railing at his doppelganger’s bloody face. Kurt’s own features are wrecked with a painful, desperate look; his eyes are as wide as can be, his vision blurred without his glasses.

GM: Kurt’s enraged strength causes the next buckle to slip free of its leather strap, painfully bruising and twisting his left wrist and causing a fresh spurt of cranial fluid to drip from his skull-protruding catheter. But his arms are free then as he swings the metal railing at his off-guard, half-climbing not-self.

Kurt: A pained expression appears on Kurt’s face, and as the sharp, needling feeling from his wounded head darkens his vision for a moment, Kurt misses his blurry mark. He buckles a little, wincing.

GM: Not-Kurt slips, then scrambles up with naked pain and exhaustion. “You sniveling piece of shit!”

Like Kurt, the murderous reflection seems to have equally violent thoughts—and no less fatigued, sight-obscured aim. Not-Kurt all but falls on Kurt, their arms grappling, slipping as the mirror-shard tears a hole in the hospital bed. “Just die, you coward, just fucking die!!!” the not-Kurt says, spittle flying from his mouth and bleeding gums. The bed rocks and wheels, even as the green emergency lights war with the strobe-esque alarm and speaker looping the same message:

“Code Goldsmith Imago. All personnel are to immediately evacuate. Code Goldsmith Imago…”

Below, the others still shake and froth. But their bodies can only take so much. The convulsions slow.

Kurt: Kurt’s own face mirrors his doppelganger’s, bloody phlegm and drool dripping from his tightly clenched teeth. The youth swings madly at Not-Kurt, flailing with his eyes closed in fear and dread.

This isn’t real, he repeats in his mind over and over, this isn’t real.

GM: Kurt and his doppelgänger grapple and flail at each other, half-blind and more than half-dead, their chemical-stained sweat and catheter-leaking cerebrospinal fluid making them and the bed slick and sickly glistening in the green light. Not-Kurt rears up, the mirror shard gripped in both hands as he tries to drive it down in Kurt’s chest.

DIEEEEEEE!!!”

Instinctively, Kurt raises his hands up, causing the metal bar still strapped to his arm to swing up. Metal and glass collide, the latter shattering. Deep slivers impede into the doppelgänger’s hands, the rest fall down like lacerating, blood-speckled rain over Kurt. Fortunately, the broken bed-frame saves him from any true injury—or any new ones at least. Meanwhile, Not-Kurt screams and crashes off the bed.

One leg still strapped to the bed, Kurt can’t see the doppelgänger in the strobe-shadows beneath or beside his bed, nor hear him anymore over the blaring alarms. Particularly because his attention is snatched away by the realization that he is being watched. Closely.

On the other side of the bed, just out of reach, a tall man stands. He is dressed in a charcoal-gray suit, starch-white shirt, black tie, and needle-toed cowboy boots. A large cattle-prod rests in his muscled hand. He regards Kurt. His salt and pepper hair is buzz-cut, and unconcealed by the uniform-esque hats that the Spooks wear. His dark eyes are creased by crow’s feet that crinkle as he smiles with a mouth full of teeth made for chewing steaks. “Helluva hook-shot, son,” the man says—or at least that is what it sounds like to Kurt. His accent, just like the man’s favorite kind of steak, is tough, thick, and Texan.

Kurt: Kurt looks with bleary, unfocused eyes at the man. “Can you please help me?” he asks, fear written all over his face. “He’s trying to kill me. I don’t know what’s going on.” He makes a move to unstrap his ankles from the bed’s rails, shaking with pulsing anxiety, trying to get away from the creature hiding beneath the hospital bed.

I need my glasses, he thinks, trying to look for them in all the ruckus, grimacing at the sight of his family in such a sorry state. Do I really want them? “What’s happening?” he asks once again, tears welling up in his eyes as he tries to control his emotions.

GM: “No time to explain, ace. Calvary’s coming, so we gotta pull a tactical retrograde.” The man tosses something, causing Kurt to flinch as something black hits his chest. His glasses. “Six eyes are better than two,” the Texan suit says as he unbuckles Kurt’s legs from the restraint and sling. Unnervingly, nothing crawls, screams, or rises from the other side of the bed. Yet.

Kurt: Kurt looks up at the man with a slightly relieved expression; he is more than glad to get his glasses back as he puts them back on his head (despite being slightly crooked due to his earlier car accident). He then looks at his family, specifically his mother, with renewed concern.

“What about my family?” he asks, a frown forming on his face. He witnessed something truly, absolutely insane. Maybe he’s going crazy. How can I tell anybody what I’ve seen? he thinks. I am going fucking crazy.

Nonetheless, Kurt keeps glancing at the edges of his hospital bed with a paranoid, frightened face. The thing was too real. Was it really him? No. He thinks, Whatever that thing was, it wasn’t me. I am going fucking nuts.

GM: The tall, suited man glances back at the no longer-conscious, convulsing bodies. “Ace, if you care about ’em, you need to get as much space as possible between you and them.” And then, without further preamble or any hint of permission asked or granted, he slings Kurt over his shoulders in a military carry, and crosses the room and strewn bodies, his family’s included. Along the way, he snatches Kurt’s metal food-tray, flicking off the crusty tuna-sandwich. Stopping just before the door, the man uses the reflective tray as a mirror to check the hallways. Seeing nothing, the tosses the tray back onto the bed, and calls back to his shoulder-riding companion, “Watch my six.”

Outside, the hallways are empty, cast in the eerie green emergency lights, pulsing strobe, and mind-drilling alarm. Kurt’s last glimpse into the nightmare-room is of Amy’s red hair flowing out like the blood that seeps from her nose and ears, and his mother’s hand dangling limply, yet still seemingly reaching for him.

Kurt: I am a coward, Kurt thinks meekly, staring at his family’s convulsing forms as he is carried out into the hospital’s hallway. I am so sorry, guys, he silently cries.

GM: Whether the man can read Kurt’s tortured thoughts or he just senses the presage of tears from the teen’s chest-sucking breaths, the tall man says, “No tears, ace. No trail.” He then adds, “Distract your mind, think of your favorite food being yanked away and left to rot in the sun. Disgust, anger, they can be shields against pain and sorrow. There’ll be time to cry later.”

Kurt: Kurt sniffles, replying weakly, “Thank you for saving me.” He feels utterly impotent and weak. His body aches and his head still feels woozy. “Who are you, anyway?” he asks, feebly.

GM: “Ridley,” the man replies as his long stride carries them down the empty hallway. When they reach a dead end with a large service elevator, the man self-identified as Ridley goes to press the down button, but halts when he hears the elevator chime, preparatory to opening. He sets Kurt down, but doesn’t let go, with a rock hard grip around the teen’s less than rock hard bicep.

The service elevator opens, revealing four hospital security guards armed with heavily modified side-arms equipped with tranquilizer rounds. Those weapons immediately train on Ridley and Kurt, but the former is ready for them before they can pull their triggers. He flashes a badge, “Stand down, boys, Special Agent Bob Burrow, liaison with Division 12. I apprehended the subject.”

Kurt: Kurt looks at the hospital security with wide-eyed surprise. He looks like a deer in headlights. Nonetheless, the boy doesn’t say a word as ‘Ridley’ flashes a badge and claims to be a special agent with a different name.

GM: Without waiting for the guards to reply, Ridley or Burrow or whatever his name is drags Kurt into the middle of the elevator amidst the obviously confused and uncertain guards.

“Come on, guys,” Kurt’s ‘liberator’ says in his Texan drawl, “It’s almost lunch time, and I ran ten miles this morning.” After another intense glance amongst themselves and at Kurt and the self-identified FBI agent, one presses the button for the roof. Already full, the evaluator is now overly cramped. Despite the inevitable jostling and bumping, Kurt feels a firm squeeze of his biceps.

“You never did tell me your favorite food, ace,” the Texan says, looking at no one in particular.

Kurt: “Chinese.” Kurt sounds like he’s trying to be positive, but with everything that’s happened, it’s rather difficult.

GM: “What about the rest of you boys?” the tall man says with a hearty grin. The situationally incongruent question further disorients the already off-kilter guards, causing them to exchange glances or look up at ‘Agent Burrow’s’ face—but not down at his free hand. Kurt, however, by virtue of his shorter stature and some other ineffable instinct spots the cattle prod slip from the man’s sleeve into his hand. “Mine’s chicken-fried steak. Jesus help me, but I love the smell of big burning beef.”

The guards never even see it coming. The first guard gets the fully-charged cattle prod in his crotch, causing himself to piss and further electrify. But by the time the first guard drops, Ridley has released Kurt and driven his elbow into another guard’s face, breaking his nose, blinding the man with his own blood and pain. The others attempt to use their weapons, but they lack the necessary space and time. Ridley drives his knee into another man’s crotch, then steps down and shatters the man’s foot with his boot even as he head-slams the fourth man, knocking him into the steel walls. A few more blows land in lightning-quick brutality. All four guards slide down the walls like string-cut marionettes.

Kurt: “Holy shit,” Kurt whispers to himself in surprise, likely loud enough for Ridley to hear. “What is happening?”What the fuckity-fuck is happening!?

GM: Ridley, his cattle prod once again hidden, adjusts his necktie, and wipes his stained elbow on a guard’s hat. “Yeah, Chinese’s pretty good too, even if it’s commie-chow.” Ridley then presses the stop button, then deselects the roof and instead chooses the basement. “Goin’ down,” he says smiling.

Kurt: Kurt looks at Ridley in disbelief. “What is happening?” he repeats the question, more desperately. “Am I going crazy or is this all real?”

GM: “Who says it can’t be both,” Ridley says.

Kurt: Kurt looks down at the ground, at his poorly cast foot. “Why did that thing call me a coward?” he asks aloud, trying to rationalize things aloud. He sounds a little manic and straining to keep a hold of his emotions. He then adds, “How I could leave my ma and sister behind like that?” He looks up at Ridley with a guilty expression.

GM: Ridley looks like he’s about to say something, but Kurt’s second question and the pain behind it, catches the thus far unflappable man. His nostrils flare and his pressed lips turn white. As the elevator descends, he takes out a peppermint and places it between his molars. He cracks it, hard. The elevator chimes. “Here’s our stop. Rock-bottom.” But he doesn’t exit. He spares a glance towards the men and the adolescent. “You know how to use a gun?”

Kurt: “N-n-no! Why?” he asks, regretting the question as soon as it leaves his lips.

GM: “Because none of these boys are using their dart-guns right now.”

Kurt: Kurt tentatively looks at one of the unconscious men. He then slowly bends over and picks up one of their guns, looking at the contraption utterly unsure how to use it. “I don’t want to kill anyone.” Why? he asks himself, You were prepared to kill yourself.

GM: Ridley gives Kurt a nod, a grin, and an approving cluck of his tongue. “Just point and click, ace. There’s nothing in there but sleepy-juice.”

Kurt: Kurt sighs in relief. “Okay. I guess that’s okay, then.”

GM: After helping Kurt limp out, Ridley punches the lobby floor and sends the knocked out guards on a joyride.

Kurt: Kurt limps with a clink from his cast on each second step. “Where are we going?” he asks, trying to keep his mind on getting out. Why am I trusting this guy? he thinks, but in reality, Kurt doesn’t have much of a choice—this is the only person so far that hasn’t been attempting to outright murder him—and besides, if he meant Kurt harm, wouldn’t he have already made that obvious by now?

GM: “Gitty-up,” Ridley says as he once again unceremoniously, if carefully, hoists Kurt upon his shoulders. “Now watch and protect my six, ace.”

Unlike the floor they left, the service basement of Mount Pelion General Hospital is quiet and lit by the steady, buzzing fluorescence of panel-lights.

“Now quiet does it,” Ridley says in a whisper as he creeps down the hallways. They duck between shadows and sneak past a hospital worker unclogging a laundry shoot.

Kurt: Kurt tries his best to remain quiet; nonetheless, his earlier crying has left him with a blocked nose, and a little foolishly, Kurt periodically sniffles in an attempt to unblock his nose.

GM: Ridley tries to silence his charge by shoulder-butting Kurt in the chest. However, the temptation and physiological reflex grows too strong when they pass through a massive cloud of steam vapor. One of the cleaners stops and looks up, mid-folding a mass produced blue and pink stripped baby blanket.

“You hear that?” an Amerindian woman says.

“What?” her colleague asks without looking up.

“It sounded like… might be the compressor acting up again,” the first answers.

“File a report, finish your shift,” the second recommends like a monotone mantra.

Ridley pauses.

“Still, I’m going to check it out. If it leaks, all the coats will get moldy.”

“Suit yourself,” the second figure sighs, not stopping her folding.

“Shouldn’t have done that,” Ridley whispers between clenched teeth. It’s not clear if he’s referring to the approaching laundry woman or the sniffling kid on his shoulders. Ridley drops Kurt down behind an industrial laundry bin, and makes a gesture of pinching his nose and shushing his lips. He then creeps off with a surprising agility for such a tall man. With some modicum of sanity around him, fragile though it may seem, Kurt is left with the physical withdrawal of so much adrenaline. His body feels heavy, his lids like iron blankets that want to slip down his eyes and fasten shut. Those eyes spring open when he hears a soft but sharp crack, like someone stepping on a dry stick. But then it’s quiet again, and his eyelids grow even heavier. As few moments later, he half-consciously sees and feels Ridley pick him up and whisper, “Take a nap, ace. Bed-check Charlie is off-duty, and your taxpayer dollars are hard at work.”

Kurt then feels something soft envelope him, and a long dark tunnel sinks away on all sides. Total darkness soon follows, like the thick velvet curtains closing on the third act.

Previous: Chapter 3

Next: Chapter 5

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.