Witiko Falls: Disillusion

Chapter 5

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Brook: Skin Deep


Brook: Brook’s day has been a fucking roller coaster so far. There isn’t a doubt in his mind that the moment he gets off school he’s going to need a damn nap. Fall has a downside, it’s easier to sleep in the cool weather, but it’s more night. More time he can’t sleep.

Now however, he leaves Hazel to her strangeness, and takes the nurse’s note down into the hall. She really had no inkling of what blood was to him. He collects it in empty milk jugs for his mother, for cooking and health samples. Back at the station, he has a coyote on the pole and an elk spine and skull in five layers of garbage bags by the dumpster. There’s an argument going on still about that, Brook posing the question ‘can I use this as a flail.’

However, there’s something in the nurse’s office that has him thinking it won’t be too bad to head down there. Leanne is hopefully still waiting for her parents. Maybe he can get a little more time with her before he has to start the next class. Though in all probability, he knows that he’ll have to suggest going home to get a change of clothes. So he isn’t ‘disruptive of others’ education.’

GM: Back and forth across the wings, up and down the halls, down and up the stairs, Brook is becoming all-too acquainted with WFHS’ layout. And his labors are poorly rewarded. Instead of black licorice-loving Leanne, Brook is greeted by an irritated Nurse Tyson who is busying treating Cecilia Broomfield’s dodgeball-induced nosebleed. There is no sign of his fellow sophomore.

“What is it this time, Mr. Barnes?” Nurse Tyson asks shortly. She snatches the librarian’s note with one of her mannish hands. “Hmmph,” she snorts as she reads the note. She crumples and tosses it in a waste bin, then gestures to a cabinet drawer. “Find something in there, Mr. Barnes.” Inside the drawer are a number of WFHS athletic T-shirts, shorts, and sweatpants seemingly stolen from the 1970s. For someone of Brook’s size, the pickings are slim.

Brook: Brook gives poor Broomfield a sympathetic nod as he walks in, giving up the note without a fuss. He really doesn’t like it any more than the nurse, giving her a sigh when she reads it over. He doesn’t argue, blood is apparently the worst thing. Even in this messed up town. Going to the drawer and grabbing a pair of—Jesus, these are going to be tight. Sweatpants are the best option, throwing them over his shoulder. Shirts… nothing that he’s going to try to squeeze on.

“Unless you want some help here, I’m going to get a sweater from my truck and get back to class, Nurse Tyson. Sound good?”

GM: “Fine, fine,” the nurse says, then smacks Cecilia’s hand as the girl starts to take it off the gauze to wave at Brook.

Brook: Brook sighs, a bit relieved, and makes his way out the room, giving Cecilia a last wave goodbye before he strides down the hall and straight out into the parking lot. His truck is beat up on the outside, but she’s a go-getter. Punctures on the dark green-painted exterior mark dates with stags, and the missing back bumper is in a bear den somewhere. To say nothing of the assorted stains on the grille guard. PARK RANGER is printed on each side, the P scratched off of one of them. But nothing has broken into her yet. There’s two front seats and a back bench seat, the back populated with rubber boots, a bandoleer of empty shell casings, and jackpot! Park Ranger-branded sweaters. Hopping into the back, Brook changes inside, his privacy protected by the tinted windows on the government truck.

After a few minutes he emerges in those tight sweatpants and a dark green hoodie, looking a bit silly but ready for class. Hopefully he can run in and grab that short story and a few things on Picts before the end of the day. Get a head start on everything tonight on his breaks.

GM: As Brook pats down his sweatpants to make sure he hasn’t busted any seams, he notices that there’s something in one of the pockets. A movie ticket stub dating back to a 1960 showing of Psycho. Easily overlooked, the stub has some numbers on it—numbers that Brook knows match the lock code for a Kelpie gym locker. 48-13-66

Brook: Curious. Brook looks the ticket over and doesn’t recognize the name of the theatre. Far as he knows, the Scarecrow is the only theater in town. These pants have a mystery in them. Mystery pants. But the locker combo catches his eyes. 1960s locker combination. He’ll have to check them out. Maybe there’s a lock that looks the part of the 1960s era, and he can do some sniffing around.

But for now, he takes his keys and opens up his glovebox, tossing in the ticket for safe keeping while he’s at it. There sits his sidearm, holstered in an old leather chest holster. It’s… his size. .460 Bone collector. Brook just reaches for the notebook underneath it. Just a quick little jot down. 48-13-66. 1960 Psycho. He’ll know what it meant. He pulls the page out and pushes it into his pocket, then locks the glove box and closes the door to his truck, reclining the seat all the way back and grabbing the portable clock he has in there. It’s set to digitally scream an alarm every day 15 minutes before the end of lunch bell. This is the last period before lunch, as well. Checking it over, he flicks on to the radio and hears a song he can’t identify fade out. His mother never changes his programs on the station. It plays continuous music until she makes an announcement.

Then, Golden Brown starts to play. “Aww—can’t miss The Stranglers,” the young man mutters, putting the radio back down on the back seat and relaxing back.

“Golden brown texture like sun
Lays me down with my mind she runs
Throughout the night
No need to fight
Never a frown with golden brown


Every time just like the last
On her ship tied to the mast
To distant lands
Takes both my hands
Never a frown with….."


Brook’s eyes un-focus as he mutters the last few words, and before he can stop himself, the lights go out.

GM: And when the lights go out, the other colors come out to play. The hidden ones, the ones that live and hunt and breed behind the Velvet Curtain. And like usual, the first colors to emerge are… carnal.

Brook: Like every other dream, he wakes, sits straight up and blinks the blur from his eyes. Senses are warped around, but there, the young man can feel the heat, the pain. Can smell burning hair and bleach. Then the world sharpens into focus.

It’s a sea of fire, like cement bathed in gasoline, red and orange as far as the eye can see, the sky a stark yellow that hurts the eyes as you peer upwards. But he’s safe. Gold structure and red velvet lining, he’s sitting stark naked in a coffin, holding something. Someone. Her skin is pale, pox-marked, and freckled without a hair on her. She’s twelve, thirteen at the most. Brook doesn’t recognize her, but in trying he can see the cause for her awkward movements. Both arms are gone above the elbows. Both legs are cut off mid thigh. Neither bleeding. Cooked meat sealed off stumps. Her face is blank, eyes covered in a red velvet matching the coffin sewn into the bones of her eye socket. She’s biting. Gnawing desperately and weakly against the boy’s chest, trying to feed.

The coffin shifts, the sound of chains jangling as someone—something—drags Brook backwards. It’s him. Peeking over his shoulder, it’s him. Dressed in raw leather riding chaps, boots, hat. Poncho fired at the fringes and smoke billowing from his mouth. The only sound is that of the girl and the spurs on his boots.

“They would have killed you when they had the chance, kid. Good thing you have me here, huh? We’re almost there.”

GM: The girl moves, mews, and tries to speak but her red curtain eyes explode into a shower of red petals. Heart-shaped petals. They drown him, her, and the other one. The colors shift.

Love, Leanne Byers thinks, lying in her narrow virgin’s bed.

Through her window streams the cold blue light of a St. Valentine’s Day full moon.

Oh love love love, love would be like

This year Leanne Byers has received twenty and one Valentines—one from Paul Newman, one from Robert Redford, one from John Travolta … even one from Ace Frehley of the rock group Kiss. They stand open on the bureau across the room from her, illuminated in the moon’s cold blue light. She sent twenty of them to herself, this year as every year. But this this year, she has twenty and one—and the last came from another.

Love would be like a kiss at dawn… or the last kiss, the real one, at the end of the Harlequin romance stories… love would be like roses in twilight…

They laugh at her in Witiko Falls, yes, you bet. Small boys joke and snigger at her from behind their hands (and sometimes, if they are safe out of earshot of a teacher, they will chant Horse-Face, Horse-Face in their sweet, high mocking sopranos), but she knows about love, and about the moon. Her family farm is failing by inches, and she is far too plain, but now, on this night of dreams with the moon a bitter blue flood through frost-traced windows, it seems to her that love is still a possibility, love and the scent of summer as he comes…

…Love would be like the rough feel of a man’s cheek, that rub and scratch.

And suddenly there is a scratching at the window.

She starts up on her elbows, the coverlet falling away from her pert bosom. The moonlight has been blocked out by a dark shape—amorphous but clearly masculine, and she thinks: I am dreaming… and in my dreams, I will let him come… in my dreams I will let myself come. They use the word dirty, but the word is clean, the word is right; love would be like coming.

She rises, convinced that this is a dream, because there is a man crouched out there, a man she knows, a man she passes in the hallways nearly everyday.

It is love love is coming, love has come

But as her fingers fall on the cold sash of the window, she sees it is not a man at all; it is an animal out there, a huge, shaggy beast, his forelimbs on the outer sill, his rear legs buried up to the haunches in the snowdrift which crouches against the west side of her house, here on the outskirts of town. But it’s Valentine’s Day, and there will be love, she thinks; her eyes have deceived her even in her dream. It is a man, her man, and he is so wickedly handsome.

Wickedness, yes, love would be like wickedness.

And he has come this moon-decked night, and he will take her. He will…

She throws the window up, and it is the blast of cold air billowing her filmy blue nightgown out behind that tells her that this is no dream. The man is gone and with a sensation like swooning she realizes he was never there. She takes a shuddering, groping step backward, and the beast leaps smoothly into her room and shakes itself, spraying a dreamy sugar-puff of snow in the darkness.

But love! Love is like… is like… like a scream!

Too late… the beast pads toward her, yellow eyes gleaming with cool lust. Leanne Byers backs slowly toward her narrow virgin’s bed until the back of her dirty knees strike the frame, and she collapses upon it. Moonlight parts the beast’s shaggy fur in a silvery streak. On the bureau, the Valentine cards shiver minutely in the breeze from the open window; one of them falls and seesaws lazily to the floor, cutting the air in big silent arcs. The beast puts its limb up on the bed, one on either side of her, and she can smell its breath … hot, but somehow not unpleasant. Its yellow eyes stare into her.

“Lover,” she whispers, and closes her eyes.

He falls upon her.

Love is like dying.

GM: Brook awakes wet with sweat, his pants wet with… other fluids. Blood is in his mouth, coppery and sharp. The truck rocks.

BROOKS!!!!”

Daniel starts laughing, rocking the vehicle back and forth as he dances atop the truck-bed. “See, June, I told you the nun didn’t kill him!”

Brook: Blood in his mouth. Fuck. Sitting up slowly, he runs his tongue along his teeth and checks around. Fuck. Rolling the window down slowly, he peeks his head out, showing his groggy face but not anything else. Tinted windows a blessing. “Hey, you squaw punk, that’s government property!” he yells, a grin on his face. “What are you guys doing here, I was having a nap for lunch period.”

GM: “Lunch?” he hears June ask incredulously.

Daniel pulls down the back of his pants and moon’s the cab-window. He laughs, “School’s over you dweeb! Sun’s almost down, and the moon’s a shining!” The sky outside confirms his ‘story’.

“Knock it off, Dan,” June says, then knocks on the window. “Seriously, you okay? Did she hurt you?”

Brook: Brook peeks up and slowly deflates. The alarm didn’t go off—or he slept through it. It’s hard to tell as the alarm’s batteries are dead. But his friends quickly cheer him up; he ignores Dan for a moment and looks to little June. “I’m fine. In school suspension until I finish an essay. Give me a second, I sweat through my pants. I’ll be right out.”

Rolling the window back up, he makes it quick. Pants and underwear down, mop up the mess, jeans on. Commando style. He even pulls his sweater off, and tosses it in the back. Checking his zipper one last time, he opens up the glove box and straps on the iron, before he finally opens up the door and hops out. “I’m alive. Sticky and sweaty, can’t wait for winter. But alive.”

GM: “Sticky and sweaty?” the two other teens say, exchanging awkward glances. “Gross, dude.” “TMI.”

Brook: Brook rolls his eyes and shakes his head, a small smirk on his face. “Shut up. You try falling asleep wearing a sweater in a metal box in the sun. Plus, you both know my sleep issues. Rough ones all day.” But things are different now. He can see the moon, the sun is promising to leave. There isn’t going to be any sleep until it comes back.

“More importantly, it’s after school…” Looking back down, his eyes slowly shift into something a bit more serious, adjusting the leather on his chest. “We should talk about that ‘job’, Danny.”

GM: With a mischievous grin, Daniel snaps his fingers, seemingly producing a dime out of thin air. “How about we make a little wager, huh? I bet I can slap this dime through my hand and into yours. If I can, you take us to O’Tolley’s for shakes and fries, on your dime if you catch my drift–”

“Danny,” June interrupts.

“–and then you take us to Thirsty Moon Records, eh?” he adds.

The music-crazed girl stops interrupting.

“If I can’t or if you guess the secret of my magic, then I tell you all about my new job.”

A few other students, mostly upperclassmen on their way to their vehicles, slow down or stop, seemingly intrigued by the hint of street magic.

Brook: Brook folds his arms a little at the sight, knowing he can’t outwit Danny when it comes to his magic tricks. “Dude, I’ll take you both out without that. But I—ugh. Just come here.”

Closing the distance, he puts his hand gently on his friend’s shoulder, pulling him in and whispering, “Danny, I just want to know if it’s drug related. The way you behaved this morning? A ‘skittish’ employer? Not wanting to tell me? Come on, man. Don’t bullshit me.”

GM: With the magic show over before it began, the other students saunter off to their own affairs.

Daniel, meanwhile, shakes his head and whispers in kind. “Drugs?! Shit, man, no. Just no.” He shakes his mohawk head again. “I might be getting a gig dealing cards.”

Brook: Brook loves his friend’s magic, but not right now. Now is ‘make sure both their mothers don’t murder his best friend’ mode. Hearing the reasoning behind it, he sighs and gives him a gentle smack on the back of the head. “You’re going to give me a heart attack one day. Congrats, you deserve it.”

Opening his truck, he shoves the messy pants and underwear underneath the back seat along with a few other bits of garbage and clothing, and grabs the ever handy aerosol air freshener, dousing the inside of the truck and pushing some shit out of the way so whoever is in the back can sit. “Let’s get going, kiddies! I’m buying!”

GM: Never one to turn down a free ride or food, Daniel piles in after June. As they sling on their seatbelts, the latter turns to Brook. “Have you ever gone to a doctor, I mean, for your sleep problems? I mean, can’t they do tests or don’t they make medicine?”

Brook: Brook pauses hearing the question, looking back over to June and thinking for a moment. Yeah, that’ll be okay to show her. Shifting so his back is to her, he pulls up his shirt a little, showing off a clump of puncture scars on his spine. “Spinal taps, they get your brain fluids. Nothing can be done for dreams. Only medicine out there is like… PTSD soldier meds or something.”

Fixing his shirt, he gets his seat belt back in order, starting up the truck and pulling out of the parking lot. “You get used to it, June. Music and art!” Speaking of such, he grabs a case off his dashboard and tosses it into the back. “Speaking of music, pick a CD. Should be a bit of everything in there. I even got The Notorious B.I.G Biggie Smalls last album the other week. Poor dead bastard.”

GM: June’s petite mouth gapes, searching for words.

Daniel, meanwhile, pops in the suggested album. “Poor dead bastard,” he echoes. “I heard his murderer was wearing a bow-tie. Weird. I mean, who does a drive-by on a rapper and thinks ’let’s put on a bowtie’?”

Brook: Brook rolls with it. Rap isn’t the big itch scratcher for him, but B.I.G is His–tor–y. His music is important. “That sketch was silly. Tupac Shakur and now Biggie Smalls. Then a few years ago Kurt Cobain did himself? Crazy world.” Keeping his eyes on the road, the young man makes a B-Line for O’Tolley’s, eyes sharp. It feels good not to be sleepy. “Anything interesting happen with you two today? Or did I soak up all the adventure?”

GM: “Well,” Daniel says as June turns down the music, “There was an assembly today, and half-way through it, Assistant Principal Crabb took off all his clothes and went streaking butt-naked through the bleachers.”

June elbows him. “He’s joking, Brooks. Also, Dan, that’s just gross.”

Daniel does his best cheek-puffed imitation of the portly school administrator and pretends to shake a flaccid, naked belly in June’s direction.

For his antics, he receives another elbow to his ribs. “Danny!” she scolds, half-disgusted, half-amused. She then turns to Brook, “I forget what period it was, but did you hear about the gas leak?”

Daniel nods, “Yeah, the one at the hospital. Versus after-lunch Gary Busing.”

June mock-slaps her boyfriend’s shoulder, but laughs.

Brook: It always feels good to have them both around him. Especially with the memories of that dream still fresh in his mind. Maybe it’s time to start on that failed ‘dream warrior’ shit again, or to check out a book or two on dream interpretation. Because if it’s literal? That’d mean…

“Gas leak at the hospital? Shit… they have a crematorium there, don’t they? Could have ended badly. Boom-badly.” Though with that news, maybe it’s better not to think of it. He’s sure everyone is FINE. Or else his mother would have tracked him down to help with relief efforts.

“I do have some news, though! June, I expect you already heard about me nearly killing Leanne Byers? She was sending none too subtle signals at me today.”

GM: “They said there weren’t any casualties, which is good,” June answers just as Brook updates them on Leanne.

“Wait, Horse-Face was putting on the moves?!” Daniel laughs. “What’d she do? Neigh?”

“That’s not nice, Danny,” June reprimands, her face clearly unhappy.

Daniel, however, does not take the hint. Instead, he neighs and asks Brook, “Or did she strap on a saddle?” He roars at his own joke.

Brook: Brook is glad to hear that. Still, something to talk to his mother about. Gas may be natural, but it’s supposed to remain certain places. It isn’t good for the animals. Natural gas is also heavier than air. Last thing he wants is the cave systems filling with methane and turning the entire town into a hell on earth.

His focus changes when Danny starts to get mouthy. Leanne is nice. “You do realize you’re going to be single if you keep this up, don’t you ‘Rufio’? She’s nice! If a bit concentrated on my hair for some reason.”

GM: Daniel’s laugh slowly trails off and is replaced by a scowl.

“Your hair is really nice,” June says, making her boyfriend scowl even more.

Daniel mutters something that neither of the others hear.

“What?” June turns and asks.

“Oh nothing,” he replies unconvincingly.

Brook: Brook smiles just a little, giving June a sideways look of thanks before he hears how Butthurt Daniel is being. “Okay, okay. I’m sorry, Danny. That might have been a bit too far.” Besides, how many times do us two get called savages and snow niggers? Grow up. “You should give people a break, though, man! Leanne’s okay so far. Don’t know if she’s my type, but she was cool with the accident.”

GM: Daniel manages a half-smile to let his best friend know he’s ‘okay’.

June, meanwhile, says to Brook, “Yeah, I… don’t really see you with her.”

Brook: Brook grins a bit and reaches overtop of June’s head to ruffle his hawk. “Yeah, it’s… she really is nice! I don’t like the thought of her being bullied. But I need a girl who’s… I dunno, stronger? I feel like Leanne would get lonely with me working.” They have to be getting close by now. He turns down another street, sure he can see the sign peek over a building. “Still have to work with her for that project, though. Danny wouldn’t switch with me. He got some… sci-fi fiction race.”

GM: “Yeah, underground aliens in Antarctica! It’s actually pretty cool. You could probably do a show on it.”

June meanwhile bites her lip and flicks her bangs out of her eyes. “Yeah, and she doesn’t care about your hobbies.”

O’Tolley’s kelly-green circle comes into view, its driveway slammed with post-school traffic.

Brook: “I might! I gotta do the Picts and work on this new in-school suspension paper about… time travel and consequences of our actions. Maybe I can take you as a caller.” It’s a strange thing to think about. Time travel. If he could go back, he doesn’t know if he’d really change anything. Maybe just… watch. Get answers.

People in this town love their grease; however, and Brook quickly pulls into the driveway to find a place to park. “Just a few more years and I can give these pricks who park in the handicaps tickets,” he mutters under his breath, moving around and trying to find a place to safely park.

GM: A few minutes later (and a few more dollars shorter for Brook), all three are sitting inside a booth, chowing down on French fries, Patty Kings, and chicken O’Dribbles.

“So what about tonight’s show?” June asks as she sips a cola. “You can’t keep winging it.”

Patty King still in his mouth, Daniel says something that sounds like ‘vacuum’.

June turns to him, frowns, and says, “No, I told you that I think that… I don’t know… crosses the line… or something.”

“You’re the one who originally suggested it,” Daniel adds after swallowing the burger bite.

“But I changed my mind,” June says, frowning.

Brook: Brook never minds paying for the meals. In a small town like this, not a lot of people their age have many options for part time jobs. Sitting down with his friends, he nods at the idea of not winging it. He does have plans! But hearing nothing from the full-mouthed jabbering of Daniel makes him curious.

“Jesus, June. I’ve known Rufio since he was a little lost boy, and I can’t understand him with his mouth full,” he says, laughing. “Come on, though. What was your idea? There are no lines you can’t at least consider crossing.”

GM: “See?” Daniel says, or at least that’s what Brook thinks he says as his mouth is full again.

Brook: Brook rolls his eyes and makes a joking choking motion to June as he once again talks with his mouth full.

GM: “Well, I guess you should hear about it anyways, just so you know,” June says uncomfortably. “So, okay, today in fifth period, Cindy Crowshoe, she… had a breakdown. I mean, she had been really quite all day. Upset, so we all gave her some space. But in fifth period, she… snapped. I don’t know whether it was something the teacher said or somebody else in class, but she just started sobbing. Like really hard. And then somebody, I think it was Mr. Henderson, asked her what was wrong, but she started yelling about how nobody believes her and how ’it’s all a lie’ or ‘a cruel joke’ and then she started to curse and scream about how a vacuum cleaner killed her mom.”

“Vacuum,” Daniel reiterates, this time eating one of June’s O’Dribbles.

“Cindy… she was hysterical,” June adds, looking down.

“So June said we should interview her. I mean, if she thinks no one is listening to her, you broadcast it big-time and everybody will listen,” Daniel says.

June seems less than convinced. “They eventually dragged her out of the room. They said she was probably hallucinating due to exposure to the gases from the hospital. We all got ‘debriefed’. I don’t know what to make of the whole vacuum stuff, but I was insane when my mom died.”

Daniel puts a comforting arm around his girlfriend.

Brook: Brook frowns. This has been a day of outbursts it seems. People in this town have so many secrets and have seen so many things. Really, it’s starting to bother him as much as the odd state of the forest does. But he knows the Crowshoes, they’re all still alive aren’t they? Even if her dad is out of town. Rather quickly, however, it becomes clear why she’s a bit hesitant to talk about it, leaning across the table and putting a hand in her reach as those memories come.

“I should talk to her about it first. Maybe it’ll be good for her to get it all out of her system, have her voice be heard. But that’d have to be her choice. This is a bit… sensitive. Not only that, but imagine word getting back to her very much alive mother. More importantly, there’s something weird going on. It wouldn’t be hallucinations from the gas, or it’d have affected more people. That’s horseshit. I’ve told you both about the animals in the Falls being off, a hundred times already. Maybe the station should be for people to talk about this weird town… air out the rot.”

GM: “See, I told you it was a good idea,” Daniel says, rubbing his hand on June’s.

“Yeah, ok,” the freshman answers tentatively.

The trio’s meal and tender discussion, however, are disturbed by a small group of football players coming ‘fresh’ out of practice. Much to Brook’s chagrin, Nelson is one of them. As several of them march off to the public restroom, Nelson brushes against Brook’s shoulder and calls back, “Heh, Pohlman, better watch out or you’ll catch snow nigger cooties—or maybe with Ms. Creek and Rufio, you might catch rabies.”

Brook: Brook smiles a little to his friends upon seeing that they agree with the idea, however prohibitively on June’s part. Maybe he’ll have to talk to her about her mother as well. Before he can open his mouth again, they’re being accosted by the group of brutes. He sighs, and shakes his head and ignores them for the most part. It’s best to make them feel unimportant.

“Speaking of the station, I found a new set of claw marks on the stone the other day. Something smaller. Either the Grey Devil is getting explosive or we MIGHT have some wolverines coming in this season. Either of you want a new hat?”

GM: Daniel bristles at the insults and starts to rise and say something, but the smaller kid embarrassingly has to sit down when his bigger, best friend doesn’t rise with him. June’s face blushes as the rest of Nelson’s entourage laugh and snigger about ‘red pansies’.

Eventually, June speaks up. “You know, I forgot I promised my uncle I’d help re-stain the patio. I better call him.” She gets up and fishes for some change in her purse. Daniel tries to convince her to sit back down, but June just shakes her head. She doesn’t look Daniel or Brook in the face. She walks out and heads to the payphone outside. Daniel glumly looks at his best friend.

“Brook… you remember back in seventh grade when I said, ‘Someday I’m going to let you beat Nelson up’? Well, ‘someday’ is any day now, buddy.” He looks out the window at June.

Brook: Brook knows his friend is going to stand up, but he’s trying to show him that there’s a better way. June’s reaction however makes him worried. It’s pretty obvious she’s using it to get some space from the table, and that the two of them should let her—much as he wants to go and clear things up. But then Daniel goes on, eliciting a bit of an eye-roll at the boy.

“Daniel, beating up Nelson will just make things worse for us. You’re like a brother to me, so please listen when I say that there’s a time and a place. He’ll slip up one day. The white boy, not the savages. We gotta let go of that anger, we can’t be boys forever.”

Looking back out to June as well, he just sighs. “Want me to go and talk to her while you take a breather? We can still hit the record shop.”

GM: “What?” Daniel says, surprised and bristling once again. “No, I don’t want you to talk to her. You two talk enough as it is. And as for little brother, need I remind you that I’m like two weeks older than you.” He looks back out the glass. “One of these days, I’m going to catch that douchebag by himself and ‘pow’!”

Brook: Brook shakes his head. “I didn’t say little brother, Daniel. Just brother.” Looking back out to June as well, it’s… he feels bad for her for a moment. “You know, you might win as well. But then think. No Las Vegas. No tuxedo. No card tricks in the big lights with June on your arm. They’d put you away.”

It’s true. There’s more eyes on them than usual. Brook feels it. Even when he doesn’t have Blood tribe blood, it still feels like there’s nothing but Nelson’s eyes on them. “Do it for June, man. Chill out. Focus on going places, getting her out of this dump.”

GM: Dan’s sour mood does not abate. “You might not have said it, but you thought it. You’re always treating me like a little brother, like you’re the responsible one and I’m the fuck-up. Ever since you hit that growth spurt and got your permit. I’ll catch up, just you wait and see. And people fight all the time without going to jail.”

Brook: Brook’s frown comes a bit up his face as well. Dan is forgetting he’s the fast and smart one, maybe he needs to be reminded. “I had responsibility beaten into me with a stick by a lady who throws me to literal wolves, Danny. You’re the smart, quick, and lucky one. You have June, and I got nada. You’re going to be a card dealer, and I reach into holes full of raccoons. You’ll grow physically, but I’m not above you, man. I’m not even part of the fucking band.”

Sighing again, he runs his hands through his hair and looks out at June again. “People fight all the time on the reserve. But in town, they’ll use any excuse to put away a ‘snow nigger’, Danny. Nelsons grow up and become dumb cops.”

GM: “Yeah, well, maybe we need to stand up to him now and teach him not to mess with us,” Daniel says, still clearly upset and not wanting to be talked down from a fight.

But as the saying goes, speak of the devil, and he shall appear. Nelson and the other football players brush past the two friends.

As one jock swipes Daniel’s mohawk, Nelson calls out, “Aw, did June leave Rufio and Peter Pansy to play fudgepackers by themselves?”

The other meatheads snigger.

Daniel stands, but he struggles to find any sensical comeback. The jocks just laugh and walk out the door to their truck. Nelson, however, takes a quick detour and leans against the payphone, sneering as he says something to June.

“That’s fucking it, man,” Daniel says as he storms out.

Brook: Brook already had an inkling about how this was going to pan out when it started, squinting his eyes shut in exasperation when they walk by at the worst possible moment. Despite his words, he gets a little rigid when they touch his friend’s hair, shooting them glances and standing up when Danny does this time, watching them leave.

No. No no no no NO. They did the worst possible thing to do at that moment in talking to June. Things are spiraling out of control. Following Danny out the door, not thinking anything he says can make him stop now. But his hand is already in his pocket, pulling out his badge. Just in case. Once out the door, he looks back at June with a sympathetic look of ‘sorry’ as he tails after little beaver.

GM: June hangs up the phone, clearly upset by whatever Nelson said.

Nelson, meanwhile, just laughs, and upon spotting Daniel storming towards him, turns with his hands up in mock surrender. “Be cool, little lost boy, she’s all yours—as my motto is, ’Don’t put up if she don’t put out’.”

The other jocks, mid-piling into the truck’s cab and bed, laugh. “C’mon, Nelson, I’m starving,” one calls as he stands up in the truck bed.

Daniel full out runs at Nelson as he yells, “You fucking white-bread ape-shit!” He swings to punch the JV football player in the face. And misses. Terribly. Nelson steps to the side at the last second, causing the blow to go wild. Already running, Daniel utterly loses his balance and trips, falling hard on the asphalt parking lot. The jocks roar with laughter.

June runs to her elbow- and knuckled-blooded boyfriend. “Just leave, Nelson!”

Brook: Brook winces and runs to help his friend when the swing goes wild, fully assuming that Nelson is going to go after the downed opponent. That’s it, the oversized young man steps quickly into Nelson’s face, getting in between him and Daniel, following up June’s plea. His voice is like a crack of nearby thunder, he is angry, something that very few people ever get to see.

THAT IS ENOUGH.”

It rings through the entire parking lot for a moment, before the boy gets in really close. It’s time for his trump card. Nothing is going to hurt Danny or June. Pulling Nelson in close, he starts whispering.

“I understand, Nelson. I really do. The bravado, the chest, the womanizing. You’re scared. Scared of all those big muscly men in the truck behind you knowing the real you. Except that blonde one, right? The one with the green eyes? He understands, at least a little. I mean.”

He lets that stew for a moment, before the whispers because strained and threatening in tone, leading him away from the group if he lets him.

“I am fucking everywhere, do you understand me? I am in the forests, I am in asphalt, I am in the fucking water. I’m also behind the Swiner at 4 AM, taking pictures of summer romances. You see, I’m a big softy for a good love story, especially forbidden ones. I got plenty of pictures too! So do me a favor. I don’t want beef with you. Leave me, Danny, June, and everyone I call a friend ALONE. Or I swear to god, I’ll print out fliers of you sucking dick and put them in every mailbox and locker in town. Your own parents will run you out. Just leave. Us. Alone. Maybe apologize to Danny, alone, later.”

That’s it, the life-ruining bomb that he’d kept in his back pocket. Figuratively. The pictures are away at home, locked up.

GM: Nelson is beyond scared. Beyond crushed. He’s mortified. All the color runs out of his face like water down a drain. He quivers under Brook’s touch like pliable clay, his skin hot like he’s being slapped, over and over again. Nelson’s mouth gapes open, and he gags—just like he did behind the Swiner.

The comments from the other football players don’t help—or they don’t help Nelson that is.

“Heh, Nelson,” one shouts, “Stop kissing Pocahontas and come on!”

“Yeah, invite Sacagawea to the prom later!” another shouts.

Nelson still can’t speak. He stares into Brook’s eyes like a deer gazing into a big rig’s headbeams. Utterly transfixed and struck dumb and paralyzed as his own doom races toward him. His pupils are so large they look like they might explode. His eyes grow wet, his pallid face burning now with a beet-red blush. He nods a still gaped-mouth ‘yes’ to Brook, then bursts into full-fledged tears and runs away. Away from Brook. Away from Danny and June, and away from his football friends. He runs into the O’Tolley’s restaurant, holding his shame-crushed face, and races into its bathroom.

And all save Brook are utterly dumb-struck. The jocks murmur uneasily to one another. This is clearly not what they expected. This is clearly beyond what they can comprehend. Daniel and June are likewise speechless. Eventually, Danny asks the question everyone else is too stunned to ask:

“What the hell did you say to him?”

Brook: Brook watches him run for the fucking hills, turning to the group and huffing into his hand, smelling his breath and sniffing it like it’s somehow his breath that did the damage. Though finally the silence is broken by Danny, making his bigger friend just smile, before looking to the rest of the jocks.

“Drive home safe. Riding in a truck bed is a bylaw violation. Coach Ross would kill you if you all died in a car wreck at the same time.” Grinning to himself, he comes up to his friend and offers him a hand up. “We’ll talk about it somewhere else. Let’s get out of here already.”

GM: The jocks look to one another and decide to hightail it to grounds that make sense to their simple meathead minds.

Danny’s jaw is still slack with amazement. “Dude, and here I thought I performed street magic.” He slowly stands, his bloodied knuckles and wrists forgotten.

June likewise stares. “What did you say?”

Brook: Brook pats off his band shift, adjusts the gun on his chest holster, and finally brushes back his hair. His heart is beating a mile a minute, he really just showed that man a vision of his entire life crumbling around him. The control felt… good. Too good. “I can’t really tell you guys. If I keep it a secret, I can keep him from bothering us. If it gets out, it won’t be good for anyone.” It’s delicate, but he’s going to keep that secret.

“But do you see, Danny? Would he have run off crying if you beat him up? Or even pulled a gun on him? Just… be you, man. Relax. Otherwise when someone figures you out…” Too tired to finish his sentence, he just points behind him. “There’s stuff to clean up your arm in the truck, let’s go.”

GM: Mutely they follow him. As Brook administers first aid, Danny keeps trying to mentally pick apart his friend’s statement. “So wait, you have some serious dirt on him, like six-feet under blackmail, and yet you’ve been taking shit from him for like years?”

Brook: Brook just cleans up the wound and picks out a few bits of rock, before slapping some band-aids on it and nodding. “Just under a year. It didn’t matter that much to me, long as I was his major target. I’m more worried about what he said to June.” He’s quickly finished, and turns to the girl. “You okay?”

GM: “Me? Yeah, I’m fine.”

“You’re seriously not going to tell us?” Daniel asks.

A horn honks, drawing the teens’ attention. It’s an old blue Buick. June’s uncle sits in the driver’s seat and waves.

June blushes. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I totally forgot. I called my uncle, and he said he was already out getting more vanish or stain or whatever it is… and he said he’d just pick me up.” Clearly not wanting to leave in the wake of the seemingly resolved yet unresolved incident, she turns back and forth.

“Everything okay?” her uncle shouts from the car, perhaps spotting the first aid kit.

“Yeah, I just tripped Mr. Pohlman,” Daniel yells back amicably. A soon to be spoken thought then pops into the youth’s Mohawk-head. “Heh, June,” he says, “How about I come over and help with the staining?”

“Uh, what about your hand?” she asks, somewhat taken aback.

“Nah, Brooks isn’t just a pretty nurse, he’s a good one!” Daniel then goes over to Mr. Pohlman’s car and strikes up a conversation, presumably offering his help.

June, meanwhile, looks back at Brook. “Thank you,” she says, laying a petite hand on his. “For sticking up for me, for keeping this cool, for… all of it. You’re a really great guy.”

Brook: Things get a little awkward when the uncle shows up, glad he seems worried about what’s happening. It’s a good sign of character. It’s even more awkward still when Danny goes off to offer his help, and sweet little June comes to thank him. Her hand is so small, so soft. That elated feeling from being in control over Nelson plummets as thoughts of him and June pop back up after… like a day. It’s like a golf ball dropped into his stomach acid, but he can still feel the heat in his gut building up, suddenly reminded he’s going commando.

“June. Don’t mention it, okay? I’m really not… that was some dark junk I just pulled. We all got shit we… hide away, and Daniel is a great guy, he’s just insecure like all of us.” He needs to get away from her for a little bit, or at least get his hands doing something. Tonight is going to be a rough one. “We can talk more about it later. Do you want some space from Dan? I can take him home. Or another set of hands to help with that deck? I have time before I have to be at the station.”

GM: June’s reply is as conflicted and confused as Brook’s own emotions. “What, I, I don’t know, I mean, sure. Wait, that doesn’t make any sense,” she says laughing self-consciously.

There’s another honk from her uncle, and Daniel, who is now inside the Buick, shouts out, “C’mon, we’re killing daylight!”

“Okay, I gotta go,” June says awkwardly to Brook, before embracing him in a hug and giving him a slight kiss on the neck. She then breaks off and races toward the blue beater, her movements as light as a deer’s. “Thanks, Brook! Good luck with the show tonight!” she calls back as she gets in the car.

Daniel yells from the back seat, “Yeah, and don’t forget you still owe us a trip to Thirsty Moon after your detention!”

Brook: Brook’s main emotion through all of this is guilt, a lusty afterthought definitely the second largest. Giving her a sympathetic look at her laugh, he just shrugs. Everything is a mess. Her hug doesn’t make things any better, feeling her lips on his neck of all places! Did that mean? Is she? Shit…

He waves a bit awkwardly to the rest of them, giving them a thumbs up. He’ll definitely drive them again tomorrow. Maybe he’ll be lucky and Danny can’t come. That thought makes his gut sink again, but he still touches the kiss on his neck as he gets back into his truck.

It stings a little, the instrument making him so uncomfortable grinding against the zipper as he gets in, but he starts the truck and starts off for the station. Maybe if he relieves his mother from duty early she’ll leave, giving him the chance to relieve… well… himself. Today has been so strange, but with that kiss so fresh in his head, as well as Leanne being forward with him? That dream, too. There’s a lot bottled up.

GM: And as Brook knows, nature, when bottled up, has a way of releasing itself. Violently.

GM: The shadows stretch into long claws as Brook drives his truck up to Akipunni Station. Otherwise known as Red Aspen, the firewatch and radio tower serves as headquarters for the U.S. National Park Rangers and is a redoubt against and for nature.

The stone structure juts up from the peak known as Baker’s Cudgel and as Ksah-koom-aukie’s Breast amongst the natives. Despite deeply gouged abuse by generations of mad, rabid, frenzying bears, elk, cougars, moose, and worse, Red Aspen stands resolute and unflinching. Its top floor has storm windows that provide mile-long vistas, and its two radio-towers pierce the sky, with trailing cables and vertiginous climbing rails. In short, Red Aspen is a fortress oft besieged by the demented nature it seeks to protect.

red_aspen.jpg

But to Brook and his mother, Red Aspen is home. Sure, they have a small house on the Res, but the firewatch station is where they truly live. That it might also be where they die is something not lost on either of them. As Brook’s truck pulls into the makeshift gravel parking lot, his adoptive mother, Mary Madcatcher is waiting for him.

Squat and strong like her firewatch station, Mary has a build that has been loving described as a ‘brick-house’. Her androgynous face bares no adornment, but there is a weathered wisdom and beauty in her subdued smile, wrinkled eyes, and tough, leathery skin. Despite that austerity, her U.S. Park Ranger uniform is ornamented with good medicine beads, traditional woven cloths, hand-tooled work-boots, and a clearly non-regulation miner’s hat strung with mummified grizzly-bear balls. She strolls over and places a meaty forearm on his rolled down window.

Mary.png

Brook: Brook always likes driving up to his home like this. It’s a hard sell for people who aren’t him and his mother to think of a place like this as home. Or hell, even habitable. But they make do.

Coming up, he spots his mother right away. He isn’t surprised she isn’t in the tower, she probably enjoys herself more with her hands in the dirt. But he’s careful as he pulls up, coming to a stop near her and pulling his .460 out the holster, double checking if it’s loaded. There aren’t windows on the stone. There are rifle slots. And they’re there for a reason.

“Hey Mom. Sorry I’m early, I thought I’d come bother you awhile,” he says, snapping the chamber closed and checking the safety one last time before he holsters the hand cannon.

GM: She watches him work for a while, then says, “Son, you make me smile, and you make me frown.”

“School called,” she adds with weighty explanation. “It is hard to smile and frown at the same time.”

Brook: Brook feels his heart drop into his stomach, wincing at those words and shutting his eyes for a moment, before forcing himself to look his mother in the eyes. “I thought they would. It’s my fault, but I can explain. Things have been happening.” He knows not to go off at the mouth just yet, or to shift the blame.

GM: Mary reaches a strong hand into the cab and curls it around Brook’s neck. The message is clear: _We will ‘talk’ later. _She withdraws then, out of and away from her son’s truck. Her heavy boots crunch on the gravel. Just before she enters the station, she sniffs the evening sky and the purpling-black clouds.

Brook’s cab radio crackles into life with the voice of fellow park ranger, Chelton Skinner—who is more commonly known by his ham radio handle ‘Skinny Chet’.

Brook: Brook winces a little again when she reaches in, but he doesn’t resist or pull away. He wishes she wanted to talk about it now, but he watches her back as she walks back to the station, hand on his weapon. Nothing happens, just the usual things. His mother knows how to be a parent. But then the radio crackles, and his hand goes to it automatically, pulling the receiver to his face. “This is Mad Cub, sat at the station, go ahead Skinny.”

GM: “I see you there, Skippy-Lippy,” Chet calls down, waving from the radio-tower window. From that vantage, Chet’s bespectacled, mustachioed, Euro-American features, and NPS uniform are barely visible.

Chet.png

“Heard about your step in doo-doo, Mad Cub; best wishes on the rinse-out. Anywho, we got some reports of heavy 10-45 on Bad Medicine again, so we’ll need you to pull a 10-25 at… mile marker 16. Bring a big shovel, set flares, and stay behind the line. Give me a thumbs up and a 10-4, Mad Cub.”

Well-versed in NPS radio codes, the local wilds, and ranger lore, Brook knows that that Bad Medicine refers to an old logging road that now lies within Red Aspen’s jurisdiction. Bad Medicine, or Rockwell’s Fall as its known by the non-natives, has a reputation of being cursed, or at least perilous. Those who ascribe to the former claim that the area was cursed by one of the first settlers to the area, a Mormon missionary, one Eli Rockwell, whose young wife, Jezebel, was “taken by the pass” as they made their way from their home in Salt Lake City to their new assignment in what was at the time, mostly unexplored (by the white foreigners) frontier.

In more recent years, Rockwell’s Fall’s reputation of being haunted has only grown—or amongst those of more ‘rational persuasion’ has become a place one doesn’t want to run out of gas or get a flat tire. Something seems to channel fog, wing, and storms in the mountainous pass, and most years at least a dozen motorists are killed crossing the pass, despite the rangers’ best efforts and most modern safety precautions. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blame unique geological formations for the strange weather and treacherous conditions, but the natives are quick to point out that geology can’t explain why in many of the accidents, the bodies are never found. Still, it’s the shortest route through the mountains, so despite the danger, it’s still a commonly used road. Unfortunately.

Contrary to what his school grades suggest, Brook is actually a good student—at least when it involves something that interests him and allows him to learn at night. Consequently, the junior ranger is well aware of the region’s history. In particular, he recalls the following: Jezebel Rockwell is the first noted victim of Bad Medicine Ridge. She was killed in the fall of 1869, when the wagon she was traveling in slipped off the trail through the pass and tumbled into the ravine below. Eli Rockwell, an early Mormon missionary and husband of the late Jezebel, is the individual who purportedly cursed the region. Jezebel’s body was never found, and her husband gave up the ministry not long after her death.

Out of the 324 fatality crashes on the pass in recorded history, only 19 bodies have ever been recovered. Authorities blame the terrain, which makes search and recovery exceedingly difficult. Search and Rescue NPS teams that examined the most recent fatality accident reported seeing bear tracks in the area. Recently, Jeffery Davies, a Witiko Falls native and survivor of a minor one-car accident on Bad Medicine, claimed that a ghostly figure stepped out onto the road in front of him, causing him to swerve into the guardrail. However, Chet’s investigations into Davies’ history unveiled a history of DUI charges, including one from the night of his accident.

Perhaps most relevantly, Brook knows that the road, or at least the section he is being sent to, is infamous for roadkill. With local fauna already seemingly possessed by a death wish, the treacherous road means that more than one accident has been caused by crossing wildlife—and un-removed roadkill only increases the risk of future collisions and casualties. Consequently, clearing roadkill from Bad Medicine remains one of the rangers’ most dangerous if regular duties.

And this evening, that duty falls to him.

As Brook mentally reviews all the above, he hears Chet’s surprisingly low Rick Astley-esque voice, “Sorry for the short-straw, Mad Cub. The rest of us are tied up with the fires.”

Brook: Brooks looks up at the Ned Flanders-looking motherfucker up in that window, sighing deeply and shaking his head. Was that all he had to call about? There’s more news, unfortunately. None of it good. But at least it isn’t his mother on the chopping block. He needs these calls to be as tough as her someday.

“10-4. Time to face the Mormon’s curse. Kitting up for 10-41. And don’t worry ’bout it. I can handle it. Keep my chair warm. Diddly-10-4, Flanders?” Chet isn’t going to live down his mustache until he shaves it off. Brook has never had a man in his life, just his mother. No one has earned that title yet, least of all Chet. Not that he isn’t okay. Hanging up the receiver, he opens the door and jogs up to the station, opening the door and rushing to his room to get changed into his uniform.

This is a small town, and if his mother is any indication, dress code has a little bit of leeway. After putting on the standard works, the winter-field ballcap, pants, boots, and shirt, he throw on his utility vest, fastening it tight and fixing the name tag over his heart. Duty belt has his radio, hunting knife, flashlight, handcuffs, flare, wildlife mace, and the holster for his sidearm. His vest pockets full of nothing but the finest of bear-grade lead.

This is the scary part, he quickly strides through the station to find his mother. Make sure she isn’t too mad at him before he goes to fuck around in bad juju. “Ma! I have an animal to move out the road at Bad Medicine. Can I have a hug before I grab my rifle and leave?”

GM: Like most Kainai and Native American parents, Mary Madcatcher is not known for being effusively affectionate, verbally or physically. And right now, Brook is not only in academic trouble, but he’s burning daylight. Mary stands, door in hand, about to enter one of the station’s few office rooms. Within, two male voices discuss something about “the pattern” Neither voice belongs to a park ranger—or at least not any of the local ones. Mary looks in the door, then tosses her adopted son an extra pair of flares from her utility belt. “Clear the road, save lives, come home safe.”

Despite her subdued facial features and laconic speech, Mary’s message is clear. As long as roadkill blocks that stretch of Bad Medicine, lives are in mortal danger. Brook has his job, and she has hers. Everything else, including detentions, school suspensions, and worse, can wait. The setting sun, on the other hand, won’t.

Brook: Brook gets the hint, though it breaks his little heart just a bit. After he pockets the extra flares, he runs over to the gun-case and pulls out the perfect ‘just in case carrion becomes carry-out’ friend. M1A Scout Squad. Black composite. He stuffs more than a few magazines into his vest and bolts back out the door. There’s already the emergency road stop kit in the back seat of his truck, under the seat along with the mystery pants. But he hops into the truck and takes off back down the hill, picking up the radio to Chet.

“Mad Cub is 10-86. Heading to 10-45 off Bad Medicine. Skinny Chet, permission for Junior Ranger to engage 10-39? Suns dipping down.”

GM: “10-69, Mad Cub. Affirm on the 10-39. Skinny out.”

Hazel: Attila Awakens


GM: A few minutes and one replaced spark-plug later, Hazel’s lawn mower is up and running. Harvey gives his daughter a high five, then climbs into his truck. He rolls down the window, and then with an awkward, cheesy grin asks, “So, uh, pumpkin, when you see your mom, tell her I said ‘hi’ and… that I’m sorry… for being a bonehead.”

Hazel: “How were you a bonehead? You haven’t done anything wrong.”

Besides answering when he knocks.

GM: So every time the devil knocks,
Please forgive and understand.


“She’ll understand. Hopefully,” he replies with a slip in his grin.

Hazel: Faith’s not enough. I need to know. All of it.

“Hopefully better than I do,” Hazel remarks dryly. “But sure, Daddy. Thanks again for the help with the mower.” She glances about as if to be sure no one is overhearing, then adds, “I probably wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t to destroy Beatrice.”

GM: “Right,” Harvey says in a clumsy agreement to everything Hazel just said. “Love you, kiddo, have a great night!”

Hazel: “You too, Daddy, on both counts!”

GM: He pulls away, leaving her with the running lawn mower—and Beatrice who glares at her from her curtain-less bay window.

Hazel: Hazel looks the hateful old woman dead on and doesn’t just smile. She waves too.

GM: The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.

Hazel: I should have told Dad that quote.

GM: Beatrice receives the wave with all the hospitality of curdled milk. True to Hazel’s prediction, it is as if she shrivels ever so slightly, like a bespectacled prune imploding in the sun.

The expression and reaction bring to mind another quote from the war-master: If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Beatrice is irritated.

Hazel: Glee wells in Hazel’s heart, though her face remains a mask of cheerfulness. She then does exactly what she told Mrs. Worwood she’d do. She mows the lawn. The whole damn thing, corner spots that run up against the house and the edge of the property included. She is meticulous to a fault, even picking up the clippings and disposing of them in the compost bin.

Hazel isn’t normally suited for this kind of hard manual work. But by the time she’s finished, she’s not even winded. Her pace hasn’t slowed, and she won’t be hitting the shower, for no sweat stains her clothes. She didn’t even change her shoes, normally ill-suited for yard work.

After all, she has a cause worth fighting for.

Once she’s finished trimming the grass, Hazel turns off the mower, disposes of the yard waste, and walks up to Beatrice’s house. There’s even a bit of a skip to her step as she knocks twice on the front door to announce her presence, a cheerful smile purposefully in place.

GM: If there’s a skip to Hazel’s step, Beatrice’s has a grinding hobble. Several deadbolts slip open before the door cracks like a slit. The hunchbacked woman glowers up at Hazel. “Yes?” she croaks with all the smoothness of gravel.

Hazel: “Hello, Mrs. Worwood,” Hazel smiles. “How are you today?”

GM: “Old,” she replies truculently.

Hazel: “Scientific studies show that people who live to be old can expect longer lifespans,” Hazel replies with good humor. “If it’s not any trouble, I was wondering if you could be so kind as to inspect my lawn? I want to be sure I’m no longer violating any town ordinances, and I can’t think of anyone who’s got as great a memory for them as you do.”

GM: “What?” Beatrice says, clearly thrown off-balance by the social sucker-punch.

Hazel: “I’d like to be absolutely certain that my grass is within prescribed limits,” Hazel replies seriously, still smiling. “I don’t want to attract any mosquitoes through inadvertent negligence, and you’re the one person I know I can trust to make sure that won’t happen.”

GM: Beatrice’s wrinkled mouth gapes open and close several times like a rainbow trout tossed aboard Jonas’ boat. Eventually, the stunned crone closes her trap, grabs her keys and ruler, and marches slowly to Hazel’s fresh-cut lawn. The inspection is satisfyingly thorough for Hazel—even as its results seem to be equally unsatisfying for Beatrice.

Mrs. Worwood seems to further dry up. Her beady, dark eyes sweep over Hazel, searching for some chink or exploitable flaw. She looks and looks, but once again comes up empty-handed. Her gnarled hands wring her ruler till her wrinkled knuckles turn bone-white. Her haggish lips miserly part. “You’re up to something.” She stabs the ruler up to Hazel’s nose. “Mark my words, I’ll find out.”

Hazel: “Thank you so much for your time and help, Mrs. Worwood,” Hazel beams. “Please feel free to come out and measure my lawn at any time—and don’t hesitate to inform me if it gets too tall. I’d consider it a personal favor, in fact, if you were to do so. I’ll be mowing my lawn weekly now, but you never know how fast that grass can grow!”

“Would you like me to walk you back?” she smiles, extending an arm for the hunchbacked old woman to lean on. It was a moderately long walk, after all, inspecting the whole lawn. Beatrice could be tired.

GM: Beatrice is tired indeed—particularly of her neighbor. She bitterly shakes her head, then starts a slow, limping shuffle back to her house. “I will find out,” she caws over her hunchback.

Lamia retreats.

Hazel: “You take it easy, Mrs. Worwood. Have a great afternoon!” Hazel beams with a parting wave. The happiness in her voice is all-too is sincere. The thought of actually touching Mrs. Worwood is beyond repulsive to her. Her elderly neighbor clearly found the prospect of calling that bluff equally abhorrent.

GM: A door-slam is the only farewell Hazel receives.

Hazel: She turns and heads back to her own house. Her smile is subdued, but far more genuine than the prior ones her neighbor saw. This war’s second victory is hers.

She has no intention of letting it be the last.

Hazel: Hazel’s stride might slow as she enters her ‘rental’ home, but her heart rate only increases. She did fib to her mom about taking an afternoon nap in one of the rooms—but she didn’t about revisiting her bedroom. There are surveillance devices there to check.

GM: However, it takes no special surveillance equipment to know that there’s an intruder in her house. A monster. He happens to be sitting on her couch, watching TV.

Hazel: Hazel stops in place and stares. She’s positive she locked the door. Especially after… recent events.

The anxiety attack hits like a swallowed sucker punch she’s trying to vomit out. Her vision briefly swims as she stumbles towards the wall, leaning against it for support. Breathe in… breathe out… breathe in…

“Eddie. How’d you get in?” Hazel abruptly asks. She genuinely doesn’t think to announce her presence and avoid giving him the start he gave her.

GM: Hearing Hazel, Eddie jumps up from the couch and runs out the front door. Initially, the panicking Hazel thinks he is running away, driven by guilt if not fear. However, the costumed youth stops on Hazel’s porch, turns around and rings her bell. “Trick of treat!” he calls, oblivious to his neighbor’s distress. Today’s costume consists of a slightly too large full-body long johns stuffed with a pillow and a disturbing mask made of a baby’s jumper, with eye and nose holes cut into the similarly yellow-white fabric.

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Hazel: “Eddie. How did you get in,” his distressed neighbor repeats, presently in little mood to dispense candy. He’s inside. Her house. When he wasn’t supposed to be.

GM: Eddie looks up with his bizarre mask. “The door.”

Hazel: “It was unlocked?” Hazel half-states, half-questions.

GM: Eddie nods. “Trick of tr-” he begins to say, but then seems to notice that he has left his jack-o-lantern bucket inside. He goes to re-enter.

Hazel: Hazel promptly closes the door before he can intrude. Again. Then she reflexively locks it. Her natural instinct is to inspect the door for signs of forced entry—but there’s another potential component to this story. The camera upstairs. The covertly placed microphone. The tiny tape strip over the window. She abruptly strides up to her bedroom to check on the surveillance devices, Eddie’s presence and misplaced jack-o-lantern bucket genuinely forgotten in her urgency for answers.

GM: Her surveillance equipment provokes as many questions as it answers—and none of them are comforting. The taped window remains undisturbed—but it is one of the few exceptions in her room. Everything seems… off. Like she’s stepping into a parallel universe tilted just a few degrees. Someone or something has clearly been in her room. Nearly everything looks touched and set down almost in its prior place. Her hairbrush, her dirty and clean laundry, her nightstand book.

Hazel: Anxiety lurches in her stomach. These are my things. A STRANGER went through them.

The second panic attack slams into her like it’s trying to make up for the first one’s lack of efficacy. Air constricts in her lungs. Her head swims. She leans heavily against the wall.NO, god damn it, not NOW! She has to retain a clear head. She has to examine what’s happened impartially. This is just another crime scene, like the one she and her dad worked on. There are rules and procedures here. She knows what to do. Her hands shake, but not enough to stop her from pulling the forensics kit out of her backpack.

GM: Hazel dusts for fingerprints and finds many—but only one owner.

Hazel: Mine, or its?

GM: It is clearly the former. Perhaps equally frustrating is the video camera she hid. It too has been seemingly moved ever so slightly—but its tape has been removed.

Hazel: Even negative knowledge can be useful. This thing either secretes no prints or simply wore gloves—in which case its intended aim is clearly to unnerve her. The tape, though, causes a deeper frown. She closes her eyes for a moment in silent frustration. God damn it. It knows that I know. Should have stuck to research at the library. Got too greedy and played my hand.

GM: The microphone, however, remains. With everything seemingly jostled and moved, Hazel isn’t sure if it too was touched or overlooked, but its tape remains.

Hazel: At least something has come out of this. She hits ‘play.’

GM: The tape is long, with hours of silence. But amidst the silence are some fluctuations. It’s hard to say how much of the noise is simply capturing the normal creaks of the house—a place that largely remains foreign to its month-long resident. But between the silent stretches and static warbles, there are bumps in the night. Faint.

Hazel: Being in somewhat of a hurry, she fast-forwards until she hits the suspicious noises, then rewinds to hear where they start.

GM: It’s like chasing shadows. Blind. But there’s one section she finds… it sounds like… growling. And later… whimpering.

Hazel: Hazel considers these developments for a moment, then chucks the useless camera onto her bed. The tape flies out onto the floor. She isn’t upset, but it’ll look like she was to an intruder who revisits the scene. She then rights the room’s most obvious incongruities, but leaves the more subtle ones undisturbed. Her own adjustments have an almost temperamental quality to them. Books, hairbrush, discarded clothes, shelves, everything frenetically moved back to where it should be, but just as far off from its original position. The changes paint a picture of someone who has noticed the oddities in her room, angrily sought to correct them, and overlooked their full extent. Someone who misses details and is easily scared. Hazel then writes out a note and leaves it on the bed:

_I’m giving you tonight to read this note and never come back_—or else when I do, tomorrow, I will bring a GUN. ‘Gun’ is bolded and violently underlined several times.

It’s a laughable threat. If her nocturnal visitor laughs at it, so much the better. Hazel will be laughing even harder once—well, that’s for later. It’s too late to un-tip her hand and convince the voyeur she’s ignorant of its presence—but she can try to convince it that she’s an easy victim. And that she will be here, helpless, tomorrow night. Tonight she will sleep at her mother’s, and will be the last night she spends running. Tomorrow she will complete her research.

And tomorrow night, armed with that knowledge, she will spring her trap.

Next, Hazel logs onto her desktop computer. It’s a previous Christmas present from her mom, and a few years older than her laptop, but sometimes it’s useful to have more than one computer. Like right now. She drafts an email and writes a script to send it to both her parents’ addresses in six hours if she does not cancel it. The message begins with, “I was last headed from my house to the Swiner. If you are receiving this automated email, something has happened to me,” and informs Harvey and Lydia of the route she will take to bicycle there, the time she is leaving her house, and a wealth of other pertinent information that would be useful to a police detective looking for a missing person—including the results of her earlier investigation into the anonymous contact who sent a message from her faculty Outlook account.

She expects to cancel the emails, given the results of her ‘reading’ this morning. But that doesn’t mean she’s walking into this meeting without any contingencies. Even her contact said to trust no one.

Hazel finally takes her leave of the house and then looks down to see Eddie’s misplaced jack-o-lantern. Oh. Right. She thinks for a moment, but decides against filling it with candy. She sets it out on her front porch with a note inside.

Eddie,

I’m sorry for locking you out so suddenly. I suffer from panic attacks, which means that sudden and unanticipated changes in my environment (like finding someone in a place I don’t expect them) can make me very scared and upset. So even if you find the front door to my house unlocked, please wait to come inside until I am present to grant permission. I am happy to do so, I simply require that my personal boundaries be respected.

Hazel

Despite the attempt to be down to earth, the somewhat verbose note will probably go over a seven-year-old’s head. His parents might see it, though, and they’re better equipped to talk to Eddie than she is. Hazel then locks the door, puts on her helmet and backpack, mounts her bike and takes off for the Swiner.

GM: The evening air is brisk as Hazel flies down the valley roads. Above her, the purple sky is streaked with twilight-black clouds. Wood smoke, shadow-velvet pine, and the flowing river scent the autumnal vistas of the surrounding Bitterroot. A large RV rumbles down the road, while neighborhood kids play flashlight tag. As Hazel approaches the Swiner, the glow of passing headlamps and taillights becomes more frequent, but the roads largely retain their weekday languor.

GM: Hazel clicks on her own. Witiko Falls simply doesn’t have as much ambient light as Spokane did. Geez, it’s getting dark early. Though I suppose people have that thought every autumn.

GM: As the last red gleam sinks below the mountains, Hazel arrives at the Swiner. Built in 1924, the all-night novelty diner is fashioned in the shape of a gigantic piebald pig, with windows for eyes, a gaping mouth for a front door, and more windows along the pig’s long body, as well as a rudely positioned back door. A few well-fed patrons lumber out of the front door, flavoring the air with the scent of sizzling bacon, smoked ham, and strong coffee. Inside, the twin, dog-tattooed proprietors, Delma and Gertrude Yager, serve up orders of Crispy Piglets and Slaughterhouse Fives. This evening, the brick-framed women sport pumpkin-orange hair. As usual, their patrons are a mix of former and current Kelpies, truckers, and the oddball passerby.

Hazel: Hazel feels awkward as she steps inside the crowded, greasy diner after locking her bike outside. She doesn’t eat out very often—ordered food is harder to steal than groceries—and on the occasions when she goes to restaurants with her parents, she lets them talk to the wait staff. The food here looks… really heavy too. Hazel isn’t a vegetarian—she is above all a free-food-arian—but she does prefer lighter fare. Nor does she want to spoil her appetite when she’s having dinner with Mom.

Still, she feels like she should order something to justify her presence, even loath as she is to part with money over the non-essential purchase. She somewhat stiffly asks one of the sisters for a cup of coffee, sits down in the third booth from the door, and covertly tapes a non-colored, clipped-out “Y” newspaper letter to the table’s underside.

GM: The Rottweiler-inked Delma brings Hazel a cup of black coffee that has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. “Anything else?” the beefy woman asks.

Hazel: “I’m good for now, thank you,” Hazel answers.

GM: “Let me know if you want anything else, hun,” Delma says before heading to refill another patron’s cup.

Hazel: “I will do so,” Hazel states, taking a sip of the steaming joe. She pulls out a book to read (somewhat odd in the restaurant setting) but keeps an eye out for her contact.

GM: She does not wait long before she’s ‘contacted’.

“Itty-bitty thing like you better order some meat,” a road-rough man says to her from the adjacent booth. He stares at her with his same-sized pupils that all but scream: Outsider.

Hazel: Hazel ignores the man and turns her book’s page. She doesn’t like his look, she doesn’t like his words, and she doesn’t like his kind. For now, she overlooks him. But if he persists in pushing her, he’ll see how hard Attila pushes back.

All right, she grants after a moment, that assessment might be premature. But he is speaking to her, when she doesn’t know him. She abruptly feels glad that she doesn’t live in the South. She’s heard that strangers will actually strike up conversations in the middle of grocery stores. The mere thought is flabbergasting.

GM: “You waiting for somebody, little thing?” the man says, swinging a muscled arm over their mutual booth’s edge. He’s dressed in a beat-up Bud Light baseball cap, a spotted wife-beater that shows off his sun-burnt arms and white chest-hair, and worn jeans. A hunting jacket with flannel lining sits beside him, cast off in the relative warmth of the dinner. His short-trimmed salt-pepper hair has turned more salt than pepper, particularly on his close-cropped horseshoe mustache and the overgrown wisps above his ears.

Dusty.jpg

He grins. “Like maybe a big strong man to keep you warm on these cold, dark nights?” His pale blue crinkle with mirth—and an ineffable familiarity.

Hazel: Hazel finally sets down her book. “The consumption of cooked animal flesh will not increase my physical stature. My weight, perhaps, but not my height.”

“Your advances,” she states perfunctorily, “are wasted on one such as I.”

GM: His grin only grows. “Ah, everyone knows the best catches put up the biggest fight.”

Hazel: She shouldn’t encourage him. But the question gnaws at her. “Your facial features look vaguely familiar. Have we met before?”

GM: He strokes his horseshoe mustache. “Don’t think so, as I’d remember a sweet thing like you—and I promise you’d remember me.” He stands. “Though a few women say I remind them of Clint Eastwood and Paul Newman.” One sauntering step later, he slides into the booth across from her. He takes off a pair of rough work gloves and extends a rough-calloused hand. “I’m Dusty. What’s your name, angel-face?”

Hazel: Hazel’s cool expression grows noticeably chiller as the man intrudes upon her physical space. Even beyond his casual sexism, that seat was reserved. She stares at the extended hand with all the regard she might for a splotch of dog vomit as she coldly states,

“Leave. Now.”

GM: Dusty doesn’t leave. Instead, he seems more emboldened. “Now do you play this hard to get with all the fellas, or just the ones who really crank your engine?”

His confidence only grows as he catches her staring at his hand. A stare that lingers, and perhaps shifts, as Hazel spots the tattoo on it. An eerily identical tattoo: Felix the Cat carrying a lit bomb, above two lines:

Fighting 31
JFK 1983

Hazel: No. It can’t be the same man.

GM: Dusty spots her gaze, and squeezes his hand, making the cat ‘run’.

Hazel: Just like it couldn’t have been Layne Tuttle? Knowledge is power, and all power has a price. Nevertheless, this is one Hazel is not prepared to pay.

GM: Or perhaps this one Hazel has already paid for—as the memories of only twelve hours ago come back in binocular-sharp detail. With those details reviewed, Hazel becomes convinced that the hands are not the same. The hair color is wrong. Just like she knew the torn off limb didn’t belong to Uncle Mack, Dusty’s hand-hair is lighter in hue and thickness.

“We get ours at night,” Dusty says extending the hand as if Hazel asked to touch or hold it. “I bet you like military men, don’t you? Discipline and danger all in one package.”

Hazel: Hazel is through with talking. A low hiss sounds as the released mace sprays over the trucker’s eyes. “Insert entendre on expelled fluids making tactile contact with your face.”

GM: The low hiss becomes a loud scream as the overly smitten Dusty catches the full barrage in his wide-open eyes and mouth. “ARRRHHHHGAHHH!”

Hazel: Yeah, I remember pretty well how that feels.

GM: He tries to rise, but stumbles and trips over the table, half-falling out of the booth as he claws at his burning eyes. The rest of the diner freezes.

Hazel: Hazel looks up. This was to be expected, but she isn’t quite sure what to say. She settles with, “This man makes unwelcome sexual advances upon female patrons. I encourage all women—and men—who feel similarly victimized to do more than passively endure such abuse.”

GM: A lot of the patrons seem to look at each other and silently or not try to piece together Hazel’s last remark. Beyond her odd phraseology, it’s hard to hear her when Dusty tries to rise, screaming, and knocks over the salt-shaker and napkin dispenser.

A few of the patrons, truckers mostly, stand up, but it is not clear whose aid they’re coming to. The Yaeger twins, however, reassert control as Delma violently pours a lukewarm pitcher of coffee over Dusty’s face, and with her sister Gertrude heaves him to his feet and hurls him out the pig-rump back-door. Dusty barely has a chance to make his screams coherent enough to yell a few slurs at Hazel before the door slam shut on his still burning, coffee-drenched face.

Hazel: Hazel smiles at the man’s rude exit. “My apologies for the trouble, nevertheless.”

GM: “It’s on the house,” Delma says, motioning to her cup. “You wanna refill?”

Hazel: “Yes, please.”

GM: A few truckers leave out the front door, muttering about checking on Dusty. Most however, jeer or clap as they sit down, their show over as suddenly as it began.

Hazel: Hazel resumes sipping her coffee and reading her book, eye still on her surroundings. She’s uncertain if her discretion-valuing contact will still want to show after that stunt, but there’s nothing lost in waiting a few minutes.

GM: The students, meanwhile, begin to gossip madly—about the “badass” new librarian.

Hazel: That manages to bring a bit of a smile to her face as she reads.

GM: Several of them shoot her a thumbs up, or pass by her booth with a compliment. “You showed him!” says one cardigan sweater-wearing girl as her varsity jock boyfriend gives Hazel a jaunty salute.

Hazel: “I like to think that I showed everyone something. All one need do is refuse to endure such verbal abuse,” she smiles back.

GM: The girl smiles.

“C’mon, Judy,” her boyfriend says, ushering her to the door, “-the cabin isn’t going to get to third base by itself.”

“Troy!” the girl gasps, her face turning beet red. She tries to stammer out an apology or farewell to the librarian, but is swiftly carried away by the football jock.

Hazel: Hazel is neither offended nor amused. Teens will be teens. She never understood the appeal in cabin make-outs (and fingerings) when she was their age, but now that’s simply grown to be another aspect of human behavior she recognizes she does not share.

It does take her a moment to recall what third base is. She’d read a helpful mnemonic somewhere. French, feel, finger, fuck.

GM: Meanwhile, her other ‘admirers’ are less direct, but still all-too numerous. As Hazel tries to discern whom her contact is, she is deluged by too many suspects. High school students whisper to themselves and point at Hazel. A logger reads a newspaper, occasionally eying Hazel over its edge. A pair of truckers call their waitress over and seemingly jerk a thumb at Hazel, asking some question or making a remark she can’t hear. Even Delma and Gertrude seem to give her careful looks.

Hazel: Damn it all. So much for a discrete meeting. But then, what was the alternative? Attila does not endure the coarse advances of coarser men.

GM: Time and time again, a figure gets up, glances at her, and makes some gesture is if beckoning her to follow—only for the man, woman, or teen to instead be asking the waitress for a check, paying their tab, or going to the restroom. Time slips away, leaving Hazel second-guessing every interaction, every face, every word and gesture.

Hazel: UGH. People. Always, it comes back to people. Why couldn’t he just leave me alone? she thinks exasperatedly.

GM: Outside, night falls hard on the town. She can hear a bitter wind biting at the diner windows, whistling through the front-doors’ cracks. Lights prick on; customers come and go.

Hazel: Well, looks like this was a bust. Hazel finishes the last of her coffee and mentally prepares the phrasing of her request to use the phone. After a minute, she approaches one of the Yaeger twins and inquires, “May I use your phone to call a ride, please? I wouldn’t put it past him to seek retribution after I leave.”

GM: Gertrude stops mid-sizzling a pork chop and points to a corded phone right behind the counter. “Sure, but make it quick.”

Hazel: “Thank you, I shall.” Hazel picks up the phone, dials her mother’s number, and gets right to the point. “Hi Mom, it’s me. Would you mind picking me up from the Swiner? I sprayed mace over a trucker who was making sexual advances on me and I’m uncertain whether it would be safe to bike across town alone.”

GM: There’s a pause, but not an overly long one. A stranger likely wouldn’t have caught half of all that, but Lydia is not only intelligent, but all-too familiar with her daughter’s fire-hose communication style. There’s a click before her mom replies, “Of course, dear. Stay where you are.”

Hazel: “Thanks, Mom. See you in a bit.”

GM: “Be smart, stay safe, and call the police if he returns.”

Hazel: “I will. Lucky me having the undersheriff for my dad.”

GM: Another click. “I’m leaving now, Hazel.”

Hazel: “Okay. See you in a bit,” she repeats before hanging up.

GM: As Hazel waits, the diner hits the weekday post-supper and pre-graveyard slump. As the patrons thin, Hazel is left at the counter. To her right, a bum is three seats down, mumbling about “giants” as he picks at a pig ear. To her right, a pair of Kelpie basketball players mow down milkshakes and crackling as they gossip about a teammate who got busted trying to enter the Burning Bush using a fake ID.

Hazel: Hazel sits back down at her table. She withdraws the taped “Y” with shoplifting fingers well-practiced at lifting items unseen, scribbles a crude wigwam over the clipping along with a tarot icon corresponding to a number, and tapes it back in place. The time and place for another meeting, if her contact is amenable. Frankly, she likes the coffee shop’s character more anyways.

GM: The front door chimes. A disheveled man, reeking of motor oil and gasoline, stumbles into the diner. His bearded cheeks are blanched and wheezing, but covered in filth. His shirt is unbuttoned, exposing his fish-belly white stomach and a number of smears. His pants and hair are in similar disrepair.

Cliff.jpg

A second figure enters on the first’s foot-heels. However, the second figure is the first’s opposite in nearly every way. Whereas the first is short and flabby and aged, the second man is tall, chiseled, and hale. Unlike the first’s un-groomed hair, the second man’s angled jaw has the clean edge of a straight-blade shave and his dark hair gleams with fresh-combed pomade. Although both men wear flannel shirts, the second’s looks impeccably pressed and buttoned to the top, giving his otherwise casual clothes a military precision. And unlike the stumbling, bumbling beer-gutted man, the second figure walks with perfect posture that makes Hazel conscious of her own ever-so slight slouching.

Michael.jpg

In short, the first man is disgusting and represents everything ugly with masculinity; whereas, the second is refined, and captures all that is attractive about the opposite sex. The first man half-heaves his gut onto the counter. “Slaughterhouse,” he wheezes, “And a soda, no, a chocolate shake.”

Hazel: An all-too pertinent contrast after her recent incident, Hazel considers. She silently observes the strangers.

GM: The second man stands attentively just inside the entrance, as if waiting for something. The two extremes are not missed by the rest of the diner’s patrons—or its proprietors.

“No shirt, no service, Cliff,” Gertrude tells the first.

“What? I have a shirt,” the slob nearly slurs.

Hazel: Technically, his shirt is unbuttoned. Will he simply receive poor service?

GM: “Half-on, Cliff, at best. Button it, you’re making my customers too sick to eat.”

Cliff mumbles something under his breath, but begins to button up his shirt. To Hazel’s disgust, he misses several buttons, putting them in the wrong holes so his shirt looks contorted and scrunched up. Utterly wrong.

Hazel: A poor effort that should receive commensurately poor service, if not meal fare.

GM: “Take a seat,” Delma tells the second man, “I’ll be right with you.”

The man nods, then inspects the booths. After locating the cleanest one, which happens to Dusty’s ‘spot’, he folds into the booth and begins straightening the napkin dispenser, sugar packets, and salt and pepper shakers. Once he straightens and re-straightens those items, he takes out a handkerchief and wipes down his table till it almost gleams. He then folds the cloth in a way that reminds Hazel of military men folding and tucking a flag before presenting it to a widow in memorial token of well-rendered service.

Back at the counter, Gertrude berates Cliff. “You know, Cliff, even with a shirt, you still have to pay.”

“I got money!” Cliff spits, clearly insulted.

Hazel: Well, your present attire gives little enough indication of such. Though if one is to be judged by the company one keeps, perhaps it balances the figurative scales. She certainly finds the second man’s cleanliness and attention to detail admirable enough.

GM: Meanwhile, Delma walks up to the seated second man. “What can I get you, hun?”

“A menu, please,” the man replies in a precise baritone.

“Oh, uh, we don’t have…” Delma begins to answer with some awkwardness, as Hazel is aware the small-time novelty diner doesn’t use printed menus.

“See!” Cliff yells back at the counter, waving a fist-full of dirty dollars in Gertrude’s face.

Hazel: Hazel’s nose wrinkles.

GM: “Madame,” the second man says as he regards the first’s behavior with naked disdain. “If that man is bothering your establishment or sensibilities, I would happily remove him from the premises.”

“Oh, uh, Cliff, he’s obnoxious, but harmless,” Delma answers, “But thanks for the offer.”

Cliff hammers on the counter and his pile of crumbled money. “Slaughterhouse and shake!”

Hazel: Indoor voice, please?

GM: As Gertrude takes Cliff’s money and patiently informs the man that he only has enough money for one item, not two, Delma begins suggesting a few entrees to the second man—who Hazel starts to realize is in no way the associate of the first. The handsome man, however, is clearly upset at the lack of a menu. “How do you expect patrons to decide which meal to select without reviewing all of their options?” he asks sharply.

Hazel: The realization brings her no small degree of, if not quite relief, simple gladness. This guy sticks out as an outsider, though. Everyone from town knows what the menu is.

GM: Yes, as he turns to face Delma, Hazel can clearly see his pewter purple-grey eyes bare no asymmetry. After Delma tries to foist several other options on him, the chiseled man holds up a clean hand to silence her. He then pivots in his seat and turns to regard Hazel, his eyes and tone softening. “Pardon me, miss, but might I inquire if you are a frequent attendee of this establishment or are you simply waiting for someone to escort you?”

“Shake then!” Cliff yells at the counter. Gertrude takes the money and goes to fill his order while Delma folds her arms impatiently over her thick-bodied chest.

Hazel: “I am an infrequent attendee, and I will have an escort arriving. Nevertheless, my thanks for the thoughtful inquiry,” Hazel replies. “My name is Hazel Bauman. May I ask your own?” That seems… polite.

GM: “Yes, of course, and forgive me for my manners?” he says in a voice that has a slight accent reminiscent of Uncle Leo’s. He stands, places a fisted hand and forearm square to his chest and bows. “My name is Michael Snyder.”

Delma rolls her eyes and walks off.

Hazel: “It is my pleasure to make your acquaintance, Michael Snyder.” Hazel feels somewhat at ease around the man’s formality.

GM: Michael takes notice of Delma’s absence. “As it is to make yours, Hazel Bauman, particularly since you unlike so many of this town’s inhabitants are both lovely to look at and listen to.”

As if to accentuate Michael’s point, Cliff belches.

Hazel: “Thank you.” Hazel has never been sure how to respond to compliments on her looks. “I presume you are new to Witiko Falls? Most residents are long since inured to the lack of menus, despite the inconvenience such may pose to non-natives.”

GM: “A rather inhospitable or lazy practice,” Michael responds. He motions to the seat across from Hazel. “May I?”

Hazel: Well, she doesn’t have much time to meet with her ‘contact’ anyways. If Michael is her man, this is more discrete than openly talking about mysterious watchers. Hazel motions back to the seat. “Please.”

GM: “My thanks,” he says as he folds his long limbs into the booth, his knees unavoidably touching hers. “My grandmother is, or was, a resident of Witiko Falls. She recently died, and I am here to assist with the funeral and finalize the estate.” He adds, “And pay my respects.”

Hazel: “My condolences as to your loss. Who was she?” Hazel casually pulls her knees back.

GM: “Frieda Snyder,” Michael answers.

Hazel: “I am afraid that I am unfamiliar with her name, though I possess a poor head for them.”

GM: “I have been told that she became a recluse after her husband died some years ago. Frankly, I did not know her well.” He looks her over, not in a lustful manner as Dusty did, but as if inspecting her as he did with the tables—and after a moment, finding her suitable.

Hazel: “I see. Perhaps that may have brought you some degree of comfort, or at least served to minimize the pain of her loss. And perhaps you will yet come to know her through setting her affairs in order.”

Hazel considers the man. He was expecting her, or at least someone fitting her description. And he’s feeling her out. Her contact after all, possibly. She nevertheless keeps the back of her eye out for her mother’s car and mentally rehearses her excuse to excuse herself. Michael might seem friendly enough, but she doesn’t want her mom getting dragged into this.

Nor has Hazel forgotten the unseen intruder who typed on her computer while she lay hyperventilating on the floor. But Michael does not seem to personally recognize her. Whether he is or isn’t her contact, that means multiple hands are at work—and she has all the more reason to be cautious.

GM: Michael smiles. “Yes, I will be greatly pleased once these affairs are set in order. But there is much work to be done, and many questions to answer. And this town is… perplexing.”

Hazel: “You would not be the first newcomer to describe it in such a way,” Hazel answers with a faint smile. “So while that may do little to alleviate your immediate perplexity, perhaps you will find some solace in the knowledge that you are not alone in it.”

GM: Michael smiles again, his teeth as white and brilliant as the stars. “Forgive me, Hazel, if I am being forward, but you seem at once like and unlike the citizenry here.”

Hazel: Hazel is frowning inside, though, despite Michael’s smile. An individual could have a simply personal in her. A group is more likely to act out of collective interest. Hazel never assumed her emailer’s interest in her was benevolent, but this new evidence does nothing to put her any more at ease.

I can’t let him see Mom.

And there he goes, asking about her history now. It was a natural conversational opening. Well, she’ll play along. The information is easy enough to discover anyways, if someone put their mind to it.

“Your observation is an apt one. I grew up here, though I moved away for some years to attend college. I have only recently returned.”

GM: “Under better circumstances than my mine, I hope,” he offers kindly.

Hazel: “Thankfully, yes. To undertake employment as a librarian.”

GM: “Congratulations,” he replies. “And are you of relation to Undersheriff Bauman?”

Hazel: “My thanks, and yes once again. He is my father.”

GM: Headlights flash across the nearby window as a large SUV pulls up to the diner.

“He found my grandmother,” Michael explains. Initially the blinding high beams remind Hazel of the Spooks’ vehicles, but as the lights click off, she can tell the vehicle is white, not black, and its driver is her mother. Which means that Lydia has bought another new vehicle.

Hazel: Damn it. This is an… awkward moment to cut things short.

Hazel smiles. “I am both hopeful and confident that my father broached the news to you in a sensitive manner and sought to minimize your pain—even little as there may have been to minimize.”

She makes a show of looking up. “I am afraid to cut this short, but my ride is here and hates to be kept waiting. Nevertheless, Michael, I am pleased to have made your acquaintance—and all-too sympathetic to being a stranger unaccustomed to the ways of a sometimes, if not oftentimes, peculiar town. If you wish to schedule another time and locale to continue our conversation, or if you simply have any questions about the town which you desire answered, you may reach me at the following phone number and email address.” Hazel duly provides them as she stands up.

GM: Unlike most individuals who might bristle at the archaic or formal language, Michael seems enamored by it. He rises as Hazel makes a gesture to leave. He takes her number and address. “May I be so bold as to escort you to your ride, Hazel?” he asks, crooking his long, muscular arm.

Lydia, meanwhile, hops down from her shiny vehicle and heads for the front door.

Hazel: “Your offer is very thoughtful,” Hazel responds as she shoulders her backpack. “I called my ride after fending off amorous advances from one of the other patrons, however, and I believe it could lead to… an awkward situation, were my driver to find me accompanied by an unfamiliar man, even one as well-dressed as yourself.”

That much is true, at least.

As Hazel steps in front of the door, blocking any line of sight to Lydia, she turns back and adds, “Don’t mind the answering machine that says you’ve reached the Sweeney residence, if I’m not around to pick up. It’s—well, a story.” She smiles and offers a goodbye wave as she opens the door. “I hope you will be in touch, Michael.”

GM: Michael seems crestfallen initially at Hazel’s rejection, but her final words seem to rekindle a smile and some measure of hope. He adjusts his crooked arm to once again bow formally as he did upon first meeting her. “I promise to do so, Hazel.”

Hazel: “I shall hold you to it,” Hazel smiles again as she exits the diner. She doesn’t run, but her pace is moderately brisk so as to keep her mother as many paces from the Swiner as she can manage.

GM: Lydia meets her half-way. Hazel’s mother is a fifty-year old woman who bears her age well, but nonetheless carries the wrinkles of widowhood, divorce, and a high-powered legal career. Her dark hair is the same hue as her daughter’s, as are her eyes. Her make-up is light, and her jewelry is even lighter. Her clothing, however, clearly indicates her wealth. She wears a bespoke cashmere wool turtleneck, dress slacks, and a designer clutch-bag. And of course, there’s the brand-new Mercedes-Benz ML 270 CDI behind her.

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Hazel: Relief floods Hazel at the familiar sight of her mother. That she was able to exit the diner and ditch Michael, that she won’t have to bike home, that she can simply see Mom in person and know she’s all right after drawing the connection between Nostrum and ROSEWATER. Nevertheless, it’s likely a great deal to Lydia’s surprise when Hazel wraps her arms around her in an all-too infrequent hug.

It’s not done solely out of relief, though. Hazel’s position makes it harder for Michael to make out her mother’s face.

GM: Lydia’s arms stand out in shock. “Hazel, what’s wrong?”

Hazel: It’s a little awkward having to explain it, and abruptly makes Hazel feel very self-conscious. “Nothing, Mom. I’m okay. I’m just glad to see you.”

GM: “Me too, Hazel. Me too.” She pats her usually non-affectionate daughter on her back and head. “I’m sure you’re rattled after the encounter with the man.”

Hazel: “Oh no, he was a great deal worse off than me. His mouth was wide open when I released the pepper spray. He probably swallowed a not-insignificant quantity of it.”

GM: “Well, I’m sure he deserved that and more,” her mother says. “Now let’s get your bike.” She clicks her key-fob and the truck door opens.

Hazel: “Let’s,” Hazel agrees, unlocking it from the rack and loading it into the vehicle. She doesn’t like her mom changing cars so often, but she does have to admit the SUV’s added storage space is useful.

GM: With the backseat already folded down, it’s incredibly easy for the two women to hoist the bike into the SUV.

Hazel: “In fact, now that I recollect, pepper spray is toxic in sufficient doses when ingested. He’d probably be wise to visit a hospital.” Hazel closes the trunk and gets in on the seat across from the driver’s.

GM: “Hopefully he goes, and they have another leak.” Lydia steps up into driver’s seat and starts the Mercedes-Benz. “I’m glad you had the pepper spray,” she says, jingling her own canister clipped to her keychain. “But what exactly happened?”

Hazel: “He couldn’t take ‘leave now’ for a valid answer. Actions speak louder than words, and mace speaks quite loudly.” Hazel then answers somewhat more seriously, “He just started talking to me. I wasn’t interested in having a conversation, yet he persisted in his advances and maintained that I was playing ‘hard to get’. I found it demeaning for him to assume ‘no’ meant ‘yes’ and attempted to communicate so. When he was undeterred and suggested that I found ‘discipline and danger in one package’ attractive, releasing something dangerous from a tangentially package-like container seemed a far more attractive recourse.”

GM: Lydia shakes her head, backing up the SUV. “Men. Boneheads, every one.”

Hazel: That’s a familiar term. Hazel’s connections-seeking mind almost chooses that as the moment to bring up Dad’s apology. Almost. “A regrettably large number would appear to be. Unrelatedly, what prompted the change from the Lexus?” Hazel asks.

GM: The change of subject stirs Lydia from her own brooding. “Oh, the lease was almost up, and with you in town, it didn’t exactly have trunk space big enough for a bike. Also, the snow we had last week reminded me that there’s a reason most of the yokels here drive trucks rather than sedans. So I treated myself, courtesy of Mencken & Smithwick’s latest bonus.”

Hazel: Hazel is not presently of any mind to contest her mother’s assertion that the locals are yokels. “Well, good for you. You perform a great deal of hard work for them.” Locals. Yokels. The rhyme sticks in her head for a few moments.

GM: Lydia clearly seems pleased with her purchase. “Yes, yes, I do.”

Hazel: Although it is a bit of a gas-guzzler, Mom… Still, what’s she going to do, complain about the vehicle that’s carrying her bike? “Speaking of, you said some significant business had come up. Is that related to the bonus?”

After a moment of further thought, the irony of using an SUV to transport a carbon-efficient means of locomotion is not lost on her. Still, she asked her mom to come pick her up, in what would have been an inconvenient car to store a bike in. She doesn’t exactly have any basis to complain here.

GM: “Always the investigator, Hazel,” her mother laughs lightly. “You know, you’d make a great inquiry agent. I bet you could get your license pretty easily, dear. You’d be shocked how much the firm shells out for those services. But we’ll talk more about the future after we eat. What were you doing at that diner anyways? You didn’t eat there, did you?” Lydia frowns.

Hazel: Hazel pauses for a moment. “That’s… actually not a bad idea, Mom. I did file for a business license to work as a private investigator a little while ago. That way the city can pay me for the consulting work I already do for Dad pro bono. Not to mention I can have legal access to crime scenes.”

GM: Her mom starts to smile at Hazel’s foresight—until she hears about her working with Harvey.

Hazel: “It’s actually a very hassle-free process in Idaho,” Hazel continues, steering the subject away from her dad. “In many states, you need more rigorous certification to work as a private investigator. In Louisiana, you have to work as an apprentice investigator under a more experienced one, then as a journeyman as part of agency. There are a great many hoops to jump for someone who wishes to practice independently, all before the requirements like being a trained marksman that I don’t meet. But in Idaho, all that’s required is a simple business license.”

GM: “I’m very impressed, dear. You let me know as soon as you have your license, and we’ll celebrate. And who knows, maybe I’ll have a job or two for you,” she says, quite pleased. Almost beaming.

Hazel: “The actual process is fairly simple. You just pay a minor application fee, fill out a short form and mail it in. But I certainly wouldn’t say no to any celebrating,” she smiles back.

Nor to a chance to investigate Nostrum up close. Doing it as a licensed investigator would be… I honestly can’t think of a more ideal cover. It actually being my job to snoop around.

GM: “But speaking of hopes and good news,” her mother says with a sly grin, “What’s the story behind Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome? I could tell you didn’t want me to meet him. Were you afraid I’d scare him away—or steal him?” She says the last remark with a naughty tone that Hazel usually associates with her mom two wineglasses deep.

Hazel: Fuck.

FUCK.

“Ah, I simply thought it would lead to a potentially awkward situation in lieu of my recent phone call,” Hazel answers, trying to maintain a straight face. “And the… questionable nature of the surroundings. Which I declined to eat from, greasy pork products are generally not to my liking. And on top of that, we were simply speaking. I don’t know that it’s anything.”

GM: She flicks her hair. “Ok, dear, tell me everything.”

Hazel: Also, Mom, he’s potentially involved in a paranormal conspiracy I want to keep you away from, so there’s that too.

“Well, there isn’t presently-,” Hazel quickly regrets that word choice, “-a great deal to say. He entered the diner after I pepper-sprayed the trucker, so rather late to be the knight in shining armor. But he was new to the town and rightfully indignant that there were no menus to order from.”

GM: Lydia purses her lips. “So how did the two of you end the conversation? I hope you didn’t just run out on my account.”

Hazel: That’s actually pretty close to what I did, Mom. I wasn’t going to risk you getting drawn into this. “I provided him with my phone number and email address if he wishes to get in touch with me.”

GM: “Oh, good girl!” her mother says almost with the same maternal surprise and pride as when Hazel became toilet-trained. “And here I’ve been sick worrying that you’d go back to Lance out of some pity party.” She smiles impishly at Hazel. “Way to upgrade, dear.”

Hazel: That leaves Hazel initially wordless. There’s alarm at the change of subject to Lance. Awkward and conflicting feelings associated with her ex. Moderate indignity over a ‘toilet training’ comparison. Surprise at seeing her mother this cheerful (it seems like she so rarely is). It’s a sucker-punch of conflicting emotions that Hazel has no idea how to deal with.

“Ah… it is preferable to utilize the latest hardware whenever possible,” she stammers after a moment. It’s pretty dark out. Dark enough, she hopes, that her mother can’t see her reddened cheeks. Oh. And all that before how Michael is….. I don’t even know what he really is.

GM: “Hardware?” her mother smirks, clearly in rare high spirits (particularly because she’s not bottle-deep in them). “Is that what you kids are calling it these days?”

Hazel: Beyond a potential danger to me, and quite possibly you. And now you’re convinced we’re… aaaaagh! Could this scenario possibly get any more absurd?

“It’s—it’s simply an atypical choice of phraseology inspired by your own use of the term ‘upgrade’, which seemed tangentially applicable to the subject matter at hand…” Hazel rambles on.

Oh, and to top it off, she’s genuinely cheerful over this. There is no script for Hazel to follow here. None.

GM: Her mom laughs, as it’s not so dark that a mother’s eyes can’t see her daughter’s discomfort, nor the roads so loud that her ears can’t hear it. “It’s okay, Hazel, a girl has her needs. I understand.”

Hazel: What am I even supposed to do here? Hazel fumbles for words a few more times and finally settles on, “Needs, when and if they arise, should be met.”

GM: Her mother laughs now, full and free like she used to before the fighting, before the divorce. She clicks on the radio, grinning and eyes shining like the twinkling stars above.

Hazel: That actually jolts Hazel out of her awkward frame of mind. Mom sounds… not just mirthful. Happy. She really does. Hazel isn’t sure how she can maintain that, but she’d truly, earnestly, like to do so. The company bonuses honestly don’t seem to do that good a job, no matter how many new cars her mother goes through.

GM: But as ever, it’s the mysteries of the human heart that prove the most confounding to the would-be PI.

GM: Unlike Harvey’s multi-generational, hand-built family home, Lydia lives in a posh suite at the Ghost Elk Lodge, Witiko Falls’ only hotel on or off the reservation. Built in the lucrative wake of the Beavertail Casino and the need for well-heeled accommodations for visiting Nostrum executives, the Ghost Elk Lodge is on built on the pine and fir studded slopes of the Cloven Hoof, the largest peak on the Blackfoot reservation. The gabled, multi-story edifice has a rustic, if still high-class charm that nakedly plays upon the “white plague” fetish for native folk art, stuffed animals, antlered chandeliers, and carved totem-chiefs mixed with all the modern conveniences of “true civilization.” At night, the lights of the Lodge’s windows glow like Walpurgian bonfires against the mountain’s blackness.

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Hazel: The surroundings, Hazel must admit, are a definite step up from the Swiner and the truckers who frequent it. But it’s not Sisyphus. Mom shouldn’t have sold that house. It’s a refrain Lydia has heard many a time from her daughter. Yes, she’d waited until Hazel was in college to do so. But it didn’t matter. You buy a home, you make it, you keep it.

Nevertheless, Hazel has to concede, a hotel isn’t a poor place to spend the night. While it seems probable her nocturnal visitor will return to the Sweeney house, a full hotel still strikes her as safer than an isolated house like Lacewood. Maybe not by a lot, but it’s something. And there’s still a great degree of privacy afforded to guests. I can have them do my laundry, too. Hazel is still a little leery at the prospect of strangers handling her clothes, but it does mean another laundry cycle before she has to shoplift another jug of detergent. She can only carry so many things in a given trip, after all.

GM: As always, the Ghost Elk Lodge runs out the red carpet for its long-time patron and her daughter. Valet parking, first name-basis doormen, personalized concierge, and all hours room service await the pair.

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Hazel: Some of the luxuries are lost on Hazel. But all-hours room service is not. In fact, she’s fairly hungry. Breakfast and lunch were combined into a single rushed meal, dinner tonight is later than usual, and it’s been an active day besides.

GM: As Lydia passes her daughter the room service menu, she nudges Hazel’s backpack with her now heel-less foot. "Didn’t like my gift?

Hazel: “Oh, what was that?” Hazel asks, moderately surprised. Her own footwear isn’t so uncomfortable as her mother’s, but she nevertheless slips off her ballet flats just to be polite.

GM: “Oh nothing,” her mother replies. She taps the menu. “See anything good?”

Hazel: “Plenty, I’m sure, but you’ve piqued my curiosity. To what were you referring?” the persistent librarian presses.

GM: “Appetite first, curiosity later. They do have to make the food, after all.”

Hazel: “All right. Later,” Hazel states in a tone that is both concession and promise. Looking over the available dishes, she decides on the rigatoni bolognese, which the menu helpfully spells out as “Rich Hearty Meat Sauce, Rigatoni Pasta, Whipped Ricotta,” along with a side of lemon-drizzled grilled asparagus. She also selects a dessert—vanilla bean creme brûlée with whipped cream and assorted fresh berries.

GM: “Oh and how about a bottle of champagne or wine, we are celebrating your new employment after all.”

Hazel: “Wine sounds good. That doesn’t have too volatile a reaction to my meds.” She leaves her mother, whose expertise in such matters exceeds her own, to select the vintage.

GM: “Hmm, let’s go with the Barbaresco. Beyond being a fabulous pairing with bolognese, it’s known as the Queen of the Italian Reds.”

Hazel: “I am in the mood for royalty.” Once her mom has chosen her own items off the menu and phoned in their order, Hazel wastes no time in resuming the earlier conversational thread. “In any case, Mom, what were you referring to earlier? I don’t wish to appear ungrateful.” That’s true, and that is part of it. But Hazel feels like she’s missed a social cue of some sort here, and she wants to know what the error is so she can rectify it. There are few things she finds so impossibly aggravating as knowledge that she has done something wrong without knowing what.

GM: “It’s okay, dear, if you didn’t like the briefcase. I can replace it with something more to your taste. I just thought that you might enjoy carrying your supplies in something a bit more sophisticated than your college backpack.”

Hazel: “I must have forgotten about it. That… isn’t a poor idea at all. The backpack makes me look rather like a student. I’ve already had one mistake me for a peer even without it.”

GM: “Consider it a compliment, dear. Sadly an ephemeral one, but a compliment all the same.”

Hazel: “I suppose one is only truly old when one desires to be younger.”

GM: “Hmmm.”

Hazel: “And one is only young until one no longer desires to be older. Clearly I am middle-aged in my mid-twenties.”

GM: “Well, if the wine had arrived, I might offer a toast to desiring things we cannot have,” her mother replies sardonically.

Hazel: “And so in absence of alcoholic beverages one may simply desire.”

GM: “But still not have,” she smirks, rubbing her varicose-veined ankles.

Hazel: Hazel glances down at them. By now she has curled up on one of the room’s very comfortable chairs. “You could just wear flats like mine, Mom. They look basically the same, bar the heel.”

GM: “When the stakes are high, every inch counts, dear.”

Hazel: Hazel can’t help but laugh a bit at that retort. “But in all seriousness, they are unhealthy for one’s feet. And demeaning. They do simulate lordosis behavior.”

GM: “Run that last part by me again?” Lydia asks.

Hazel: “Lordosis behavior. The body posture adopted by many mammals, humans among them, which involves arching the back and thrusting out the buttocks to indicate female receptivity to copulation. It’s why sex workers wear them too. Which is degrading that female professionals and prostitutes should be expected to wear the same footwear where their male counterparts do not.”

GM: Her mother laughs wryly. “So do you have any?” she asks. “Heels, that is?”

Hazel: “I believe I have several pairs you got me in my early teens. That I have not worn since my early teens. Ethological and sociological aspects aside, the negative health effects are well-documented.”

GM: Lydia laughs lightly at some unshared joke.

Hazel: Hazel just looks a bit puzzled, as she so often does. “Is there something I am missing, Mom?” She adds after a moment, “Besides a collection of uncomfortable shoes in my closet.”

GM: Lydia stands and brushes a stray hair from her daughter’s head. “Yes, dear, there are a great many things. Maybe Michael can fill you in on a few.” Her mother then goes over to check her voice messages, taking down one note and punching a few keys on the phone. By the time she finishes, their food arrives. Along with Hazel’s orders comes her mother’s: a slow-roast lamb with cinnamon, fennel, and citrus, and a slice of guava cheesecake.

Hazel: “Yes, I set myself up for that,” Hazel wryly admits, perhaps several moments longer after someone else may have responded the same.

She genuinely contemplates pressing the subject further—it’s so illogical, in her mind, how her mother wears shoes that are unhealthy out of social pressure—but has painstakingly developed enough social acumen over the years to vaguely intuit that she should let this go. She remains seated as Lydia accepts the food, having no desire to interact with the staff save when necessary.

She gives a very deep mental frown, though, upon realizing her mother knows her new acquaintance’s name. If she overheard that much of our conversation, how much did he overhear of ours? How much did he see?

She chides herself that she’s being paranoid—it’s hardly a secret whom her mother is—and then chides herself for even thinking otherwise. As her mother said, when the stakes are high, every inch counts.

Well, there’s little enough to be done about it right now. What’s been heard has been heard, and what’s seen has been seen. She’ll think up a way later to dissuade Mom from the agent of the unknown group which sent an ominous email from her own desk while she lay hyperventilating on the floor—an intrusion she still finds unnerving. As for Michael, she’ll certainly be investigating him. Even if he doesn’t call her, she has his name and face.

Hazel walks over to the dining table, her shoeless feet silently padding over the floor’s thick rugs, then uncorks the wine, sits, pours, and raises her glass in toast over the still-lightly steaming meal her mother lays out.

“To new employment opportunities. And desiring things we cannot possess.”

GM: “To the future—and to the bigger and better things it will bring,” her mother counters with an unequivocally half-full glass of her own. Their meal passes in odd symmetry to yesterday’s with her dad. The food, while not home-made, is of exceptional quality. And the wine makes it all the more so.

Hazel: Story of my post-middle school life. At least Mom isn’t drinking very much.

GM: Hazel’s thought proves ironic, as she watches her mother refill her glass several times. Her pale skin starts to take on a rosy shine in mimicry of the red Barbaresco.

Hazel: Well, it’s… just wine? Not hard liquor or anything? Hazel proves satisfied with simply one glass and politely waves off any refills, in hopes that might subtly encourage her mother.

GM: The subtle encouragement falls on deaf ears—or tongues. As the meal and wine-refills progress, it becomes clear even to the socially oblivious Hazel that Lydia wants to talk. But she initially tries to avoid discussing anything to do with her daughter’s new job, her ex-boyfriend, her adoptive father, and her ‘hometown’, which dramatically cuts down on available subjects.

Hazel: Hazel tries to come up with something. There aren’t many noteworthy current events in the news, so she brings up that newfangled Google site she likes to use. It’s still got ‘beta’ marked on its homepage, but as she remarks, “You can find all sorts of things on there, Mom.”

GM: “Another dot.com bust in the making, dear. Don’t get your hopes up; it’s a passing fad.”

Hazel: “No, I think they’re really onto something. It’s a very useful service they provide.”

GM: “Time will tell, dear.”

Hazel: Hazel would normally beg to differ, but she doesn’t feel like getting into an argument with her mother right now. She changes the topic between a mouthful of the black truffle garlic bread that came with the pasta. “So tell me about your day, Mom. It sounds like you’ve been doing some extra work for Mencken & Smithwick to give out a bonus?”

GM: Usually taciturn about her work, the wine-deep Lydia smiles and seems to relish the opening. She touches Hazel’s hand and gives it an unusual, but affectionate squeeze. “A lot of work, dear, that’s been in the works for quite some time. And which I am happy to announce, unofficially and ever so privately, a labor that is almost done. Especially after yesterday.”

Hazel: The physical contact doesn’t bother her so much when it’s from her parents. “That’s great, Mom,” she smiles. “Related to the chopper you were on, I’m guessing?”

GM: She shakes her head and leans in. “No, related to who got off the helicopter.”

Hazel: “And who might that have been?”

GM: Lydia dabs the edge of her lips with the cloth napkin, then motions for Hazel to refill her glass again. “Well, this is strictly in confidence. Strictly. Not anyone in town or out of town can know. Not even, no especially not Harvey.” Despite the loosening of liquor, her mother’s lips and facial expression take on a dreadfully serious tone.

Hazel: “I understand, Mom. We all have our secrets.” All too well, she thinks a little sadly. She pretends to miss the cue to refill her mother’s glass.

GM: Lydia searches her daughter’s face for a long moment. Hazel, after all, doesn’t have the best track record in the honesty department. But she is loyal. At this point, though, it seems her mother is caught trying to assess not whether Hazel is loyal, but to whom.

Hazel: “This sounds rather more serious than PE hours,” Hazel states as if by way of explanation. She pauses for a moment, then expounds, “You know that I don’t believe in keeping secrets specifically between you and Dad. But if this is something you don’t want anyone else period to know, that’s another matter. I know you do a lot of important work for the firm and that company secrets are what they are. So if you don’t want to tell me, that’s fine. I’d still like to help, if there’s any way that I can. I know your job isn’t easy.” Hazel gives her mom’s hand a squeeze back.

GM: There’s another click deep in Lydia’s throat as she considers Hazel’s words. In the end, her reply seems to convince her mother. After all, Lydia and not Harvey won the post-gym war (short-term at least), with Hazel choosing yoga classes with her mother rather than taking dancing lessons as her dad wanted.

After a moment, her mother smiles. Noticing her glass has not been refilled, Lydia does so herself, takes a sip, leans in, and finally lets the proverbial cat out of the bag. And it is a very big cat.

Hazel: So much for that, Hazel thinks a little glumly. She’d been tempted to refill the glass when prompted, to get her mom in an even more talkative mood, but… no.

Secrets, she thinks on an even glummer note. Only two days ago, she’d felt as if she could tell her parents anything. And now? She can’t tell Dad about her investigations. Into the devil’s bargain he’s struck, into the second tape she recorded, into her planned snooping into ROSEWATER’s affairs. Which will also encompass Nostrum, given the mirrored conflux of nodes of significance that she’s positive the government agents also have an interest in. She can’t tell her mom about that either. For Lydia’s own safety. Out of fear she’s been compromised like Dad, knowingly or unknowingly. Hazel can’t even tell her about her nocturnal visitor. Lydia’s always thought the paranormal is a load of baloney.

I hate secrets, Mom, Hazel thinks sadly.

GM: Oblivious to her daughter’s thoughts, Lydia burdens her with several more secrets, both familial and otherwise.

“So you know how I started working for Mencken & Smithwick after I… stopped working directly for Nostrum. Most people, even at the plant, assume I’ve still been working for Nostrum Enterprises, albeit indirectly. But that’s not true. Sure, the firm, or its Accounts department, hired me on initially to make introductions to Nostrum, since I was familiar with the corporate structure.”

She then adds, perhaps with the wine talking, “Plus I needed the job.”

Hazel: “It would seem I was similarly confused, so far as who your initial employer was. I thought you’d always worked Mencken & Smithwick,” Hazel remarks. “Granted, I suppose not many five-year-olds would understand the distinction of Mom working for the plant but not for the plant.”

GM: Lydia shakes her head. “After your father… once we moved here… well, technically, they started making the offers before, but regardless, we moved to Witiko Falls when Nostrum hired me to help them handle all the legal paperwork necessary to buy the land, build the plant, and begin operations. It was never meant to be permanent. The position that is, dear. But they wanted an in-house team.”

Hazel: Hazel initially smiles a bit when she thinks her mother is finally referring to Harvey as her dad, but the look fades when she realizes Lydia actually means her biological father. Nevertheless, she holds her tongue for now. There will be later occasions to correct her mother on that count.

GM: “Mencken & Smithwick hired me on after my contract ended with Nostrum. Or a little bit after,” she says pursing her lips with the barest hint of a frown. The expression, though, passes. “Anyways, so the firm was interested in gaining another account, and I knew Nostrum’s legal team.”

Hazel: “I see. That clarifies that.”

GM: “Another temporary job. But they were so impressed with my introduction and understanding of the complex corporate chains involved, that the firm hired me.”

Hazel: Hazel smiles upon hearing such. “I suppose it’s rather late to offer congratulations there.”

GM: Lydia waves a hand modestly. “It was only after that I discovered the firm’s real interest in the plant.”

Hazel: Hazel grows more quiet. M&S wouldn’t be the only people besides Nostrum to have an interest in the plant—or perhaps more pertinently, the land it’s built on.

GM: “Mencken & Smithwick weren’t, aren’t, interested in gaining another account. Not technically. Instead, we’re just the middle-man if you will, working for another one of their very, very important clients: Keystone Pharma. It’s a big pharmaceutical company, with headquarters in Canada, though it’s just a subsidiary of an even bigger multinational corporation. In short, dear, Keystone wants to acquire the plant. The legalese is very, very complex, but what’s going on is something between a merger between Nostrum and Keystone and a hostile takeover. Naturally, something this big takes years and years and whole armies of lawyers, including governmental regulators, but I’m the one spear-heading things locally.”

“And after all these years–,” she says, her eyes shining with liquor, “–we’re almost done. It’s almost done. I’m almost done.”

Hazel: “That’s wonderful, Mom. I’m sure the firm will be very appreciative of all your efforts over the years,” Hazel smiles again. This all sounds rather mundane so far, but it’s clearly important to her mother. That’s been another hard-learned skill over the years. Even if something isn’t important to you, show you’re glad for the person who it does matter to. Plus, this merger could well be end up being relevant to her. Hazel wouldn’t put it past ROSEWATER to somehow still be involved.

There’s suddenly a very deep mental frown. But once that’s all done… will Mom still need to stay in Witiko Falls?

GM: Her mother regards her, smiling, her wet eyes almost tearful. “Oh they are! Hazel, once everyone signs on the dotted line, they’ve promised me partnership! Just as a junior partner, of course, but still! Partnership in one of the biggest corporate legal firms in the world. And we’ll finally be able to leave this podunk cesspool and all its horribleness behind! They’re headquartered in London, dear, but they have offices all over. Paris, Frankfurt, Chicago, Somersby, St. Petersburg. Civilization, Hazel! Just imagine what that will do for us!”

Hazel: Mom’s leaving.

Just like that, the panic attack hits. It’s only some consolation that Hazel isn’t holding any food or drink in hand as her knuckles smack against the table. Her chair rickets and teeters in place as she lurches forward, gasping for breaths her mind does not comprehend.

GM: Shock slides onto Lydia’s face. Hazel, too overcome with her private psychological maelstrom, can’t make out the expression that that replaces it, but it looks raw and pained. “Hazel!” she snaps, rising from her chair and moving over to her hyperventilating daughter.

Hazel: She’s leaving. Just like that. Hazel can’t respond. She tries to rise, to protest that—that—and as she does, the chair topples over, sending her sprawling to the floor in a thrashing heap.

GM: With the world turned 90 degrees, Hazel dimly sees Lydia walk over to her and look down—or from the side at her. “Stop it, Hazel! Stop it right now! You aren’t sick, you aren’t dying! And don’t tell me you can’t breathe, because if you really couldn’t, you wouldn’t be able to babble about it! So stop it! You’re a full-grown woman, so stop acting like a petulant child! Now!”

Hazel: That stirs something in Hazel, white-hot and furious, cutting through the panic’s tempest like a bomb detonated right in the middle of it. It doesn’t occur to her that her mother’s natural response to such a poor reception to her good news would be anger—there is only stinging bitterness and burning rage at the ‘betrayal.’ Dad tried to help her, comfort her during her last attacks. And this… being scolded for it! Maybe the anger shows on her face. Contrary to ‘right now’, however, it still takes a few moments for her convulsions to subside—too many moments, as Hazel furiously wrestles her anxiety into a dark and desolate place deep in her chest, where if it even thinks of coming out again, God help it.

Hazel does not ask for her mother’s hand as she slowly climbs to her feet. “The attacks don’t start and end on command, Mom, convenient as that might make them,” she glowers. “They are triggered by sudden and unexpected changes in one’s environment.”

GM: “No,” her mother answers defiantly, her face hot and red, but no longer because of the wine. “They come because you don’t face your fears, and because people like Harvey coddle you.” She points to the pill bottle she retrieved during Hazel’s attack. “If you’re too sick to face reality, then you could at least have the decency of taking your medicine!” She then storms off to the bathroom, her shoulders shaking as she turns her back on her own daughter.

Hazel: Furious words burn white-hot on the edge of Hazel’s tongue, like she’s crammed a whole jar of jalapeños into her mouth and is stirring the chewed-up bits around with her tongue. How, how Mom could—

But something gives her pause. Spitting on Beatrice just made the old hag’s return volley land on Dad, and that dribbled back onto her. Hazel is an empiricist. She cannot argue with the twice-verified results of smiling from behind a transparent umbrella.

GM: The bathroom door doesn’t shut. It slams.

Hazel: Hazel folds her arms. Mom won’t stay in there forever. She waits, giving her mother a few moments to cool down.

GM: Hazel’s patience is tested perhaps when she hears the shower turn on in the bathroom.

Hazel: She picks up her medication bottle, rights the fallen chair, and sits down.

GM: Time creeps onward. And Hazel waits. The food grows cool, then cold. The shower stops, but her mother remains in the locked bathroom.

Hazel: Fine. Hazel would have preferred to say this to her mother’s face, but eventually, her patience wears thin. She walks up to the bathroom and knocks softly against the door.

GM: “I’ll be out shortly, dear.”

Hazel: “You can come out to my apologies, Mom, when you do.”

GM: Lydia’s voice is quiet, but tight when she replies, “I understand.”

Hazel: “The news was simply very sudden and unexpected. But I am happy for you. A partnership and move away from Witiko Falls is everything that you’ve ever wanted.”

GM: There is no immediate reply. But then the door opens. Lydia is in a hotel bathrobe, her hair wet, most of the wine seemingly washed out of her face. Without her makeup, her mother’s face looks old and tired—and the weariness of her visage is not helped by the red puffiness of her eyes. Still, her voice is calm and controlled as she says, “Hazel, I am sorry. I know you have been going through a lot of changes here recently. I could and should have been more tactful and slow with my announcement.” She extends her arms, as if to embrace Hazel—if her daughter will allow it.

Hazel: Hazel struggles for words at the sight. Just moments ago, her mother was the authoritarian, high-powered business executive who was everything that she isn’t. Literally staring down at her in her weakness and helplessness. It wasn’t just being scolded like a child for attacks she can’t help that made her so furious—it was everything her mother had that she didn’t. Doesn’t. She’s at a loss what she should say to the red-faced and puffy-eyed old woman who’s apologizing to her too.

Her motions are almost ginger as she accepts the hug.

GM: As Lydia enfolds her daughter in her arms, she gently brushes Hazel’s hair, just like she used to when the latter was a small child and the world was simpler. “I love you, Hazel. I just want the best for you.” Her voice grows tight again, and a small shudder goes through her and into her daughter. “I don’t want you to settle.”

Hazel: “I know you do, Mom.” There’s a long pause. She knows her mother can’t see it, but she fights the impulse to scrunch her eyes. Not now, damn it… “And don’t.”

“It was simply… simply very sudden,” she repeats. “But I do want you to be happy. I know I’m not very good with emotions, but… it doesn’t feel like you have been… since the divorce.”

GM: Lydia swallows a tiny sob. “Your father used to say that swans were made to soar and swim, but never crawl.” She squeezes Hazel again. “But we don’t have to talk about moving or anything like that tonight. There’s plenty of time.”

Hazel: “Okay, that’s… that’s good. That gives time to adjust to things.” ‘We.’ It was there earlier. It’s there again. “Ah. Do you want to sit down?”

GM: Lydia releases her daughter, turning slightly away as she wipes her eyes. “Yes, of course, dear. We can do whatever you want tonight.”

Hazel: “Okay. Well, the chairs look comfortable.” Realizing she’s rambling, Hazel simply sits down on one of them. “You have been saying ‘we.’ You think it’d be for the best if I moved too?” Hazel could have suggested the couch. But she wants… some degree of distance, right now. Hugging her mother twice in one evening is a lot.

GM: Her mother follows her to an adjacent chair. Her next words are carefully chosen. “Hazel, why don’t we wait a bit to discuss that. I do want to, very much so, but… I think it might be best if we both have time to ponder and digest things a bit more.”

Hazel: Hazel can’t find it within herself to disagree, despite the million and one questions and conflicting emotions running through her head. “Okay. That sounds prudent.” She thinks for a moment and then asks, “Was one of the firm’s partners who you were meeting with, yesterday?”

GM: “Hmm?” her mother responds, startled from whatever deep thought she was having. “Oh, no, dear, not from the firm, but from Keystone, or more accurately one of the executive board members of its parent company. He came all the way from Maastricht, Netherlands to inspect the plant.”

“It went well,” she adds with a smile.

Hazel: “It clearly did,” Hazel manages with a return one. She feels almost silly thinking the chopper was one of ROSEWATER’s.

ROSEWATER. And just what might their interest be in these developments?

There’s too much she doesn’t know about their existing interest in Nostrum, which she hasn’t actually verified. And right now, on top of all that’s happening… no. She’ll think about ROSEWATER later. Later.

“You mentioned having a job or two for an inquiry agent. Something related to finalizing all the developments with Keystone?”

GM: “Yes…” her mother says, tapping the chair’s edge. “How soon before you have your license?”

Hazel: “It shouldn’t be too much longer. I’d guess… maybe tomorrow, or the day after. Slower than if Idaho simply let applicants file all the paperwork online. I hear a few states are now doing that. But everything’s been filed and approved. I’m just waiting for the license to arrive in the mail.”

GM: “Oh, that soon? Wonderful. Why, yes, I might have one or two things to throw your way. I’d have to check on a few legal loopholes first. At this point, I’m triple-checking everything. Despite years of work and everything being all but wrapped up, I feel like the whole buyout could blow up if someone sneezes too loud.”

“So don’t sneeze,” her mother teases.

Hazel: A thought snakes into Hazel’s mind unbidden, like the Serpent with its apple, like oil spilled over water. It does not belong. It is abominable. Yet it cannot be extricated.

You could sabotage it.

It’s a repulsive thought. A horrible thought. It’s selfish, petty, born of childish fears and anxieties.

Your cover couldn’t be more perfect. You’re resourceful. You could pull it off.

No. Not even cover. You’d be entrusted with making things go right. You don’t even need to be resourceful. Like she said. One sneeze.

GM: Her mother is too deep in thought to see the Edenic serpent snake its way across Hazel’s mind. Instead, she asks, “Do you have any connections to the tribe? Or someone on the reservation?”

Hazel: The thought stands there—lies there—naked, plain, and unabashed in its nauseous appeal. It’s the vice you swore you’d never indulge again, splayed out on the bed in your moment of greatest weakness. It doesn’t need to be subtle. Not when it has you sweating, desperate, and backed against a corner, frantically looking for a way out. It just says:

Mom can stay.

Hazel’s face doesn’t change as she considers her mom’s question. Inwardly, she recoils like she’s been slapped, like a cat soaked in water.

No. I could NEVER do that. She’s miserable here. I was delusional, thinking I could set her up with Uncle Leo, expect that to make things better. The loathsome thought doesn’t care. It just smiles, like she did at Beatrice. It doesn’t acknowledge her objections as a battle won. She doesn’t either. Because it’s not.

Mom says you’ve got a while to think things over. A good long while. She can resist temptation a thousand times. And yet.

All you need to do is change your mind once…

“I’ll try holding a cloth over my nose, in case I do,” Hazel manages with another smile. “But so far as Native connections, well, a potential one. There’s a Native student who’s… I suppose I should say struck up a conversation with me.”

GM: “A random tribal student wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, dear, but I appreciate the reach.” Her mother smiles. “Just let me know as soon as the license comes in the mail, as we have to play things exactly by the book here.”

Hazel: “Okay. I presume that means an NDA and no discussing related business until then.”

GM: “Yes, I think that would be… prudent,” she says happily.

Hazel: Yes, sign that NDA. You want the sabotage to go off without any sort of hitch. That means telling no one who doesn’t need to know, and no one but you needs to know. You’ve gotten rather good at keeping secrets lately, haven’t you?

Hazel swats the horrid thought aside like she would a buzzing fly.

She hasn’t squashed it.

“Business should keep until then, then. I suppose it’s quite fortunate I chose now to get the license.”

GM: “Like it’s all fated,” Lydia laughs, joking.

Hazel: “Some would say we make our own fates, and you’ve been working towards this one for… years. I’m still amazed you stayed so long to finalize one deal.”

GM: “Oh yes, well I admittedly thought it would have been done a long time ago. I mean, I knew it would be a huge multi-year undertaking, but I had hoped to have it completed by the time you graduated. At least from college.” She sighs.

Hazel: This is… not her life’s work, but my lifetime’s worth in work. I’m not going to ruin that just to make her stay! Even if ruining it wouldn’t keep her miserable, which she assuredly is!

I’ll be there, the Edenic serpent flicks lazily.

“Just one of those things that always takes longer than you think it’s going to.”

GM: “But it will be worth it. It will,” she says to herself as much as Hazel.

Hazel: That’s why she stayed. All those years…

See? It wasn’t for you. She could’ve just hauled you off to London or Frankfurt, like she now wants to. Dad would’ve objected, but you can bet she would’ve won any legal battle for sole custody. A few panic attacks, maybe a nervous breakdown, even a stay in a mental institution, and you’d have adjusted. You really think she’d pick you over her career?

No. I’d… I’d pick her. That’s why I’m letting her go. I am picking her.

The serpent flicks its tongue.

I’ll be there.

“Good things come to those who wait, as it’s said.”

GM: Her mom smiles. “Good things come to those who work. So then, want do you want to do with the rest of the night? There’s the pool, or you could watch a movie—I think I may have some you left from the last time you stayed over.”

Hazel: Hazel clears her throat at the mention of work. Her mother’s next question makes her think, but not for long. “Well, actually, I think I’m content simply to talk for a while longer. There’s been a few perplexing developments with…” She’s almost relieved as she stumbles into a familiar realm of awkwardness. “Things are very awkward with Lance.”

GM: Her mother nods, her tone turning matronly as she responds, “Yes, dear, I imagine they are.”

Hazel: “It’s not merely the issue of visiting him at the hospital, Mom. He’s become a teacher at the high school. He sent me an email.” Hazel’s tone sounds as if she’s referring to ‘a love letter with an enclosed lock of his hair.’ “Asking if I needed help moving into my new place. I almost had an attack reading it. I suppose it’s… thoughtful,” she grants after a moment, “but he’s acting like we didn’t even break up. He used the word ‘love’ twice. ‘I would love to catch up.’ ‘I would love to help you move in.’” Fixating upon details is easy for her.

GM: Lydia sighs, but not at her daughter. She moves to the nearby, comfortable couch. “Well, then, let me try to un-package all that.”

Hazel: Hazel sighs too. “I don’t bear him any active ill will—his father, maybe—but it’s as if he’s simply forgotten we realized we were incompatible for one another. And unless he’s decided he’d like to apply his intellect to a higher calling than harvesting potatoes, and his father is prepared to apologize for his poor behavior, that incompatibility remains. It’s… impossibly awkward. Being colleagues. Even if he weren’t… as he now he is.”

GM: “Yes, yes it is,” her mother quickly agrees. “You are an intelligent, ambitious woman. Of course he would be attracted to you. But attraction doesn’t equate to long-term compatibility. He’s likely just stuck in the past, pining and forgetting how different your futures are. So, you can remain professional, even polite. Yes, it will be awkward, but as long as you remain clear and firm, he’ll get the picture.”

Hazel: Ambitious? Let’s not even begin on that figurative can of worms, Mom. Hazel sighs again. “Yes, that sounds… refreshingly straightforward. What makes things even more awkward is the coma. I’m deliberating whether it would be the proper thing—well, actually moral thing—to…” Hazel just frowns.

“Aunt Winnie claims that some coma patients can be revived simply by hearing people they are…” She doesn’t finish that sentence. “She isn’t a doctor, and neither am I, so I’m uncertain whether to believe her. But if there’s even a possibility that she’s correct, it seems criminally negligent to let someone linger in a coma if simply saying ’I’m here’ could revive them.”

GM: “I wouldn’t lean too much on Winnie for medical advice. Remember she did a lot of drugs. And frankly, if hearing ’I’m here’ could bring him out of a coma, don’t you think his parent’s voice would suffice? Frankly, it sounds like something from a soap opera rather than medical journal.” Lydia sighs. “Still…”

Hazel: “You’re right on all those counts, Mom. It’s just that even if there is a 0.1% chance… it seems inordinately selfish not to grant a coma patient that much.”

GM: “Still, putting all that aside, dear, yes, it is customary to express one’s condolences or kind wishes. And I can see where you would want to do that to him rather than to his father. If, and only if, you’d like, I can take you to the hospital tomorrow.” She taps the couch’s arm. “And it might make things clear for you later. I mean, once he wakes up, and if he returns to work, you can’t be guilted into making emotional concessions you wouldn’t otherwise make. You can have a clear head.”

Hazel: “I don’t owe his father anything, well-wishes among them. This wouldn’t be a social call. Frankly, if Lance were simply injured but conscious and recuperating, I don’t think I’d even be considering it.” Hazel looks at the couch’s arm, uncertain whether her mother is motioning for her to come over or is simply tapping the couch… because. She can’t recall that gesture being in any of the books she’s read on body language. “Establishing clear emotional boundaries sounds prudent,” she grants. “In the event he recovers.”

GM: “Yes,” Lydia agrees. “Okay, so let’s approach this logically then.”

Hazel: She pauses again. Let’s approach this logically. Lydia has spoken the magic words to her heart that Harvey has not.

GM: “So let us begin by examining the probable pros and cons of visiting versus not visiting Lance in the hospital.”

Hazel: “Well, the most significant pro is the possibility, however remote, that visiting Lance could bring him out of his coma. I would be willing to visit a coma patient who was a stranger if there was a chance that my doing so could revive them. It is only a few moments of my time weighed against the rest of their life. Or at least, potentially weighed against the rest of their life.”

GM: Her mother stands, and makes a motion for her daughter to continue. She opens her briefcase and pulls out a legal pad and pen. She then returns to the couch, and makes two lines, creating four quadrants which she labels as ‘PRO’, ‘CON’, ‘VISIT’ and ‘NOT VISIT’.

Hazel: “It would be easier for us to weigh the pros and cons if either of us had any medical expertise. But in any case. That is the… sole pro of doing so which occurs to me. The cons are that doing so could be highly awkward, there is the possibility I might run into his father, and of course that Lance might… become confused as to the nature of the boundaries between us.”

GM: Her mother lists each item. “So now, what might be the pros and cons of not visiting him? That’s the step most people always forget,” she says in an oh-so-motherly tone.

Hazel: Hazel nods. “Not visiting. The cons are that it is selfish to place personal desires above the welfare of a medical patient. In this case, personal desires to avoid paying costs of a largely intangible nature.”

GM: “Let’s be logical, here, Hazel. Being selfish isn’t a con. It’s a value statement. A con might be ‘I would feel sad or bad about myself due to perceiving myself as selfish’, or ‘Others may treat me less well if they perceive me as being selfish by not visiting him’. But yes, don’t overlook the intangibles.”

Hazel: Hazel nods again. “I do mean from a moralistic perspective, Mom. Specifically, a utilitarian one. It is several moments of one person’s social discomfort weighed against another’s indefinite coma. So far as value-related statements, it is my own moral value that one should strive to achieve the greatest good for the greatest many.”

GM: “Well then, to make that utilitarian perspective, there is one more step: to project probabilities of said pros and cons.” She slides the list over to Hazel.

Hazel: Hazel reviews its contents. “The probability of my presence reviving him from a coma seems admittedly low. It is based off data from a questionable source.”

GM: “These are estimates, but let’s try our best to quantify them.”

Hazel: “Yes. For example, if one were to assign a numeric value of ‘100’ to Lance being revived from his coma, multiplied by the probability that Aunt Winnie’s assertion is true. Which we can assign a low value to, such as 1%. But lacking any expertise in matters medical, I would contend that the second assigned value is arbitrary. Better, perhaps, to simply rely on the 100.”

GM: “Being that I too am no medical expert, I won’t gainsay your prediction. But what about the other pros and cons?”

Hazel: “The pros to not visiting. It is a minor commitment of time that could be spent on other affairs. Boundaries will remain clear to Lance should he awaken on his own. There is no possibility of running into his father. I will spare myself the awkwardness of explaining to Dad why I visited the hospital with you instead of him. Then again, it would also be awkward explaining my decision not to visit at all.”

GM: “Probabilities?”

Hazel: “So far as Lance’s father, it seems probable that a parent would wish to remain close to their sole child who is in a coma. I might assign a numeric value of… 90%? Anything more specific than ‘probable’ once again seems largely arbitrary.”

Hazel gives an annoyed look. “I find Broderick’s presence irksome, but it does not intimidate me. I will have words to say if he presumes he may be so uncivil to me as he was during our last meeting.” Her frown deepens. “On second thought, it is a non-consideration, and neither a pro nor a con. I will not allow his presence to sway my commitment to my moral values.”

GM: Her mother’s mouth scrunches. “Silence and departure might be your better recourses in such an event, Hazel. He has no right to speak of you ill, but restraint might be wise and compassionate. Even the best of parents can be irrational when their child is hurt.”

Hazel: “That is true,” Hazel concedes, even if her tone is somewhat grudging. “Better to simply ignore him altogether.”

GM: “Or pick a different battlefield if you so choose to engage.”

Hazel: “Yes. Though I see little gained from such a victory besides personal satisfaction, and it seems cruel while his only child lies in a coma.”

GM: Lydia nods.

Hazel: Caught up in logic mode, Hazel then continues, “It further strikes me as advisable for parents to have multiple children. If happenstance should cause one child’s premature death, the parents will not remain entirely bereft of offspring. Were there other factors at work that prompted you and Dad to only have me?”

GM: Lydia’s reply is very slow, like how one might gingerly feel at the edges of a bullet-hole. “Yes.”

Hazel: Hazel pauses at that, realizing she’s stepped too far. Yet it remains a struggle to shift mental gears. “Ah. Would it be a greater comfort if I did not ask why?”

GM: “Another night, maybe,” her mother says weakly. “It’s been a long day.”

Hazel: “Yes. It has. Ah, I believe we were still considering the pros of not visiting.”

GM: “Yes, in fact, how about you finish that mental math while I change into some sleepwear. We can then discuss the final score.”

Hazel: “That sounds advisable. I may do the same.” Hazel pauses again, still trying to shift gears. “I am… sorry if I upset you.”

GM: Lydia pats her daughter’s hand. “No, it’s fine. Bathrobes are only so comfortable.”

Hazel: “Really? I find them fairly so. They are so soft and fluffy.”

GM: Lydia smiles and stands up, a small creak in her mother’s knee, as she goes to her bedroom to change.

Hazel: Despite being alone and the windows being drawn, changing clothes in a living room besides her own still feels odd to Hazel. So she heads inside the bathroom, closes the door, removes her day clothes and dons one of the overlarge, baggy black t-shirts that are her dress of choice at home.

GM: It’s only when she looks in the mirror to brush her teeth does she realize the t-shirt used to be Lance’s, back when they dated. The old Depeche Mode logo of their Speak & Spell debut album has become unreadable over its many washings.

Hazel: Hazel scowls and pulls another t-shirt out of her backpack. Lucky her deciding to bring a load of laundry for the hotel to do. She should get rid of those old shirts. The second one is pure black, no designs or logos. That’s how she likes her clothes anyways.

GM: The rejected t-shirt seems to stare at her accusingly.

Hazel: It’s just a stupid shirt, she grumbles, stuffing it away before pulling out a toothbrush. She heads back into the living room when she’s finished with her teeth, now barefoot, curls up on her earlier chair and resumes reviewing her mother’s notes.

GM: Her mother emerges shortly thereafter in a pair of black silk pajamas with a spiraling damask pattern. “So dear, what’s your calculated decision?”

Hazel: “I should visit him,” Hazel states simply. “If I were in a coma and his presence had some chance of reviving me, I would desire him to do so.”

GM: Lydia nods. “Then I will support you. When do you plan on going?”

Hazel: “Tomorrow sounds most prudent. Just to have it over and done with.” Also, I may not be in any state to visit him the day after tomorrow, so there’s that. Tomorrow night will be spent at the Sweeney house again. “And, if my presence does revive him, to minimize his father’s pain.”

GM: “Okay, would you like me to drive you?”

Hazel: Hazel nods. “Yes please.”

GM: “As long as it is in the evening and before visiting hours ends, I can make it.”

Hazel: “That should work for me, Mom. I usually have some work to finish up after hours, and I can just catalog books until you’re free.” Hazel thinks. Actually, she’s not sure how late her mother will be picking her up, given that timetable. She wants some amount of time to prepare the trap for her visitor. “Actually, no, why don’t I just bike home and you can call me there when you’re free? I have another solution in mind for the cataloging backlog anyways, so no need to spend any more of my own time on it.”

GM: “Sure thing, Hazel.”

Hazel: She pauses, realizing her words lack context. “Ah, the backlog. That’s something work-related.”

GM: “I figured as much, dear.”

Hazel: Hazel then abruptly asks, “So from a purely utilitarian perspective, and operating off the highly questionable but potentially true premise that emotionally charged and soap opera-esque statements are more likely to revive coma patients than a visitor’s simple presence, should I tell Lance that I love him? When he is recuperated, I could explain how I do not. A broken or at least cracked heart seems preferable to an indefinite coma.”

GM: Lydia literally stops mid-stride. “No, dear. Don’t ever lie about loving someone. To them or to yourself. It causes too many problems.”

Hazel: Hazel frowns. She has a vague sense that someone without ASD would agree with her mom. But she just doesn’t get it. “Well, if you clearly explained that it was a lie afterwards…”

GM: Lydia shakes her head. “And honestly, dear, forget what I said about that other guy as well. The one from the diner, Michael. With your new job and other things coming down the pipeline, maybe dating right now isn’t for the best. Maybe just hold off for a little while. Until things… settle.”

Hazel: “Yes, that would also likely be prudent,” Hazel agrees, thankful for the convenient cover to keep her mother away from Michael. “I’m not sure I understand your objections to the plan for Lance, but I’ll take your word for it.” She still doesn’t see what’s wrong with her idea, but… her mom knows better than she does when it comes to matters of social interaction. She knows that much.

GM: Her mother seems visibly relieved at her agreement to both topics. “Thank you.” She looks over at the dishes. “I’m calling the front desk, did you need anything?”

Hazel: Hazel offers the smile of someone who’s contemplating poisoning their enemies—and certain they can get away with it. “A gift basket. Nothing too extravagant. Just something indicative of a simple ‘thank you for this moderate courtesy.’”

GM: “What did you do now, dear,” her mother asks in a not-surprised and not really upset tone.

Hazel: “I found a way to peacefully resolve my quarrel with Beatrice Worwood in such a way that will not draw the mayor into our feud.” It’s often the case that Hazel’s explanations lack context that’s known to her and unknown to others.

GM: Lydia raises an eyebrow, particularly at the mention of the mayor. Her finger is still on the ringer.

Hazel: “Ah. Right. Dad informed me she is friends with the mayor and that intentionally seeking to aggravate her would only do more harm than good.”

GM: “Why would the mayor be–,” she starts to say, but changes track. “Never mind, I’ll ask the concierge to arrange a conciliatory gift basket.”

Hazel: “Believe me, Mom, I’m wondering the very same thing. But thanks.”

“In any case, I settled on killing her with kindness. I issued her a very thoughtful apology yesterday, for all the trouble I’ve caused her. Earlier this afternoon, I mowed my lawn and asked if she could inspect it for ordinance violations. You should have seen her face.”

GM: Her mother chuckles. “Excellent strategy. Too bad Custer didn’t have you at his last stand. As it might not have been his last.”

Hazel: “I couldn’t possibly have devised a more cruel and unusual punishment, removing all basis for her to complain over.”

GM: “That’s my girl,” she says proudly.

Hazel: Hazel smiles at the compliments. “Thanks, Mom. The Sun Tzu you got me in high school was definitely an inspiration. ‘The supreme art of war is to subdue your opponent without fighting.’”

GM: “One of my law professors used to loosely paraphrase him by saying, ‘Take away their legal ground, and they’ll break their own necks in the free-fall.’” She smiles at the memory.

Hazel: “Your professor was right. She’s become paranoid, accusing me of being ‘up to something.’ And she’ll look and look and look, and find nothing but chocolates and truffles.”

GM: “Well, then, let’s make it a really big basket,” Lydia says with an impish smile as she hits the front desk button.

Hazel: Hazel laughs at that. She’d intended to keep things modest, but on second thought… “The bigger the better.”

GM: As the two women put in the call, Beatrice Worwood is likely sleeping, utterly unaware of the king-size ‘kindness’ being prepared.

That machination complete, Lydia bids her daughter a fond goodnight, giving her a magnetic keycard to her promised room. “A deal’s a deal,” she reminds Hazel.

Hazel: “I remember, Mom. Thanks for the gift basket. I’m sure Beatrice would thank you too if she didn’t suspect it of being laced with arsenic.”

GM: “You know, I could call them back and tell them to add some powdered sugar,” she replies ruefully.

Hazel: Hazel laughs at that—and doesn’t say no. “I’ll see you in the morning, Mom.”

GM: “Likewise, dear. Sweet dreams.”

Hazel: Hazel’s one-room suite isn’t as fancy as Lydia’s, but it’s still the Ghost Elk Lodge and she’s happy simply to be in a bed away from the Sweeney house. She’s been running for long enough, though. Once she’s scoured every last tome in the Chimera and learned her visitor’s true nature, she’ll take the battle to it. But that is a matter for tomorrow.

As she climbs into bed, Hazel sets up her laptop and connects the ethernet cord to one of the Lodge’s luxuries she loves most—high-speed, broadband internet access. No dialing up at 56k for every session of use. It’s sadly too expensive for her to afford at the Sweeney house, and when she’s visiting her mother she can’t get enough of it. The first order of business is Marvin Swenson. She plugs his name into the world wide web and attempts to find a business email address and his place of residence.

GM: Hazel’s digital acumen is firing on all pistons. Nostrum’s online presence is unsurprisingly opaque and well-restricted; however, she finds Marvin’s professional profile, email included, on his SixDegrees account: swensonml9@nostrum.net.

Hazel: Nostrum? Everything goes back to them, it looks like.

Hazel sets up a fake, official-looking Nostrum email account through several layers of proxy servers (she is further thankful to be using the hotel’s internet rather than her own) and sends him a seemingly routine, business-related email that includes a trojan horse she wrote some time ago. This isn’t the first time she’s broken into someone’s computer, though the hat she’s wearing tonight is gray rather than black. She won’t have access to his files until he actually checks his email, so that likely won’t be tonight. Tomorrow she intends to learn everything she can about his patterns and routines, thereby drawing up a timetable with which to observe him in his own ‘observations.’

GM: The doctored email sends with the oh-so satisfying swish. The Horse is sent. Now, she just has to wait till the Trojan goes to sleep.

Hazel: She’s already been Hercules fighting the hydras. Tomorrow she will be crafty Odysseus entering the walls of Troy. It’s a good week to be Greek.

Next, the Sweeney house is plainly unsafe. She needs new accommodations. Hazel takes a stroll down memory lane—and a virtual one down Boulder Road, the site of her childhood home. The home she would be well-served to make her own again.

Of course, Mom would say…

Ugh. She is NOT opening that can of worms right now. Future ambitions aside, right now she’s just looking up the house’s status.

GM: Hazel’s digital inquires reveal that her house is no longer hers. It was just purchased by one Simeon Cratter. The real estate agent that made the sale is an outsider by the name of Gina Munroe of Bonner’s Ferry Real Estate.

To Hazel’s ire, Gina (or her IT guy) has posted a picture of Simeon and what she assumes is his son standing in front of the spacious property with a ‘Sold’ sign next to them. Simeon is a cadaverously thin man, balding with thick glasses, and dressed in outdated clothes. His son is his spitting image, save for a lack of balding, and clutches a copy of Aleister Crowley’s Equinox of the Gods.

Hazel: These people bear her no ill will. Intellectually, she recognizes that. It does nothing to stop the venom that instinctively wells in her heart at the sight.

That is MY house.

She supposes it’s to be expected, given the house’s reputation. No doubt those same people would think it was wasted on her parents, who were either clueless as to the paranormal or utterly dismissive of it. But it wasn’t wasted on her. She lived there for over a decade. Her earliest memories are in that house. It’s hers. Not theirs. End of discussion.

Odysseus is busy tonight as she rolls out another wooden horse. The gray hat is exchanged for black. She’s getting these people out. No, she’s stopping them from getting in. There’s still time. Unless… what mom said about… no, there’s no way I’m moving to Paris or Chicago or…

The look on her face could curdle cement. She’s not thinking about that right now. She channels the vitriol outwards. The Greek soldiers will creep through the Trojans’ homes, but they will not draw their blades. Not yet. They’ll keep them sharp and ready.

GM: Gina’s digital presence is easy to find and break into, almost pathetically so. But Simeon Cratter is what digital hackers call a ‘ghost’. Because ghosts aren’t real. Just like people with no digital thumbprint. You hear stories about them, but they aren’t real. Except Simeon Cratter seems to be just that. Save for his picture on Gina’s company web-page of Bonner’s Ferry Realty “Success Snapshots”, Simeon does not exist. Not online at least.

Hazel: Now isn’t that interesting? There are plenty of dinosaurs who don’t use the internet, but almost every American adult, or at least the ones with enough income to buy houses (which leaves a very paper-filled trail) has some kind of online presence, even if it’s tax records buried in IRS’ corner of the deep web. Maybe she hasn’t looked hard enough yet.

GM: Perhaps like other ‘confirmed ghosts’, more investigations will prove him a fraud. Perhaps not.

Hazel: But with the rumors about Sisyphus’ past… this could be something else, too. Admittedly, the house is likely to attract a very particular sort of resident. It attracted her, after all. For now, Hazel contents herself with the soldiers creeping behind Gina’s walls. She will look into Simeon’s son tomorrow. Does digital ghostdom run in the family?

One final matter nags at her mind. The tape of the Spooks. But so does a warning. You are being observed.

GM: And almost as if triggered by that thought, the door knocks.

Hazel: Hazel almost has a heart attack—or at least panic attack—at the knock. She gets up and stares through the door’s peephole to see who it is.

GM: It’s a cleaning maid, dressed in the hotel livery. She has a large laundry bin and cleaning supplies.

Hazel: “I’ll leave it outside shortly. You can return for it,” Hazel answers without opening the door. She tries to keep her voice friendly, but she doesn’t want to personally interact with this stranger. Not at this hour. Not after… just not now.

GM: “Oh, okay,” the woman says, slightly startled by the reply—or at least the request. “Will fifteen minutes be all right? Ma’am?”

Hazel: “Yes. That is fine.”

GM: “Thank you, uh, ma’am,” the young woman says, clearly unused to talking to people through closed doors. She checks her watch, moves the cart more closely to the wall and walks out of sight.

Hazel: Hazel, at least, is far from inexperienced at such face-to-door interactions. She then pulls her various clothes out of her backpack and removes the tape (well, disc) from the cardigan. The clothes go in the laundry hamper, while the tape is hidden behind her room’s ventilation grill. After staring through the peephole again to make sure the maid is gone, Hazel sets the hamper outside and promptly re-closes her door.

The tape. As much as she wants to watch it… Hazel grudgingly has to admit there is no pressing reason she needs to do so now. She needs to find out more about this alleged observer. Only then will it be safe to watch—or at least not needlessly dangerous. As Uncle Leo said: There is no safety in true science.

The journal, for tonight, is forgotten. Not after that horrible story she read this afternoon.

Hazel lies in bed, staring up at the ceiling. This is her mother’s hotel, a place she’s spent the night… enough times to consider herself familiar, if she’d been able to sleep in the same room every night. She hadn’t, of course, and the rooms’ uniformity made all their little differences stand out all the more by comparison. Going to bed in a room where she doesn’t feel completely at home is… there’s no sensation quite akin to it. She feels hyper-aware of her surroundings. The texture of the sheets and pillows against her skin. The outline of the furniture against the darkened walls. The low hum of the refrigerator. Even closing her eyes, there are so many strange, familiar-yet-not-familiar sensations.

For a moment, she contemplates knocking on her mother’s suite, asking if she can simply sleep on the couch—but Lydia would probably reply that her sensory processing issues have abated since childhood, and she should face rather than flee her fears. Despite their subsequent apologies and embrace, Hazel still remembers her anger—and shame—from lying thrashing and panicking on the floor while her mother told her to get over herself.

Anger wells in her chest like a kindled flame. Smoke wafts out towards the nocturnal visitor who made her flee her home. She twists the sheets in her hands, still hyper-conscious of their texture against her skin. She twists and tugs, shutting out the hum of the refrigerator, the ticking of the clock, the soft sound of her own breathing, everything but the sensation of the fabric (what’s it called? The name eludes her in the moment) rubbing against her palms in that steady clockwise motion. Last to go is the sensation of the tugged sheets rubbing against her legs.

All of it’s gone now. There’s just the fabric kneading and rubbing against her hands. She can feel—no, she can see, with her eyes closed—the kinetic energy spiraling clockwise in waves. She stares into the spiral. Deeper and deeper. Deeper and deeper. She loses herself in its depths—and awareness floods her brain.

GM: Awareness is a spiral that dances downward, sinking, descending, and along that dark helix is wooden, terrible laughter, but it is the laughter of a fool that has been fooled: her nocturnal voyeur has fallen to her ruse. But it remains to be seen who will have the last laugh.

Another rung, another depth descended. Along that rung she sees two great and terrible Beasts prowling in the darkness, warring one with the other. Dark fires burn in their insatiable bellies. Upon each flank is a branded name. The first is NOSTRUM, the second KEYSTONE. Between them, Hazel’s mother is being devoured, ripped limb from limb, and her scraps fought over with miserly hunger. But a third Beast, more terrible than the others stands above, apart, and aloof. It bears no brand, but a single talon carves its name: ROSEWATER.

Her mind slips deeper into the blackness, the dark curve with its own inexorable gravity of the psyche. She sees the third Beast drinking from red arteries and blue-black veins, pausing at times from its sanguine supper that stains its hooked beak to regard the pulse and flow of its succor. It knows. IT KNOWS.

And Hazel slips yet deeper, deeper than she has ever gone.

Above her, around her the spirals tighten like bands, prisons of her own making, prisons of her own unmaking. In that prison, a grand masquerade ball transpires, where she alone dances amidst a great, churning sea of fell spirits, demons, specters, and worse. One by one, she tries to place her glass slipper on their feet, but none are her Prince Uncharming. None save one. His foot is small and cold, but it fits her shoe perfectly.

But the figure, so shrouded in darkness, repays her labors with a piercing kick to her throat. The slipper shatters. Glass slivers stab into her neck, and her Prince Uncharming reaches for her with wooden-cold fingers, and as a patient lover that will no longer be denied, he drinks her red wine. Bottles of Barbaresco pour from her mouth into his. She tries to turn, to face him, to regard this dread incarnate, this thief of life, but the spirals dance away, and she cannot follow. She still clings too closely to the feeble, slowly tearing cloak of sanity. But she sees him through a tattered hole—just a glimpse. Just an eye. It is an unblinking painted eye of jealously, of hate. Of evil.

The cloth of sanity rips. Threads of fabric curl and tear in dark spirals. Around and around like a black carousel, her voyeur watching from the back of stake-impaled steeds. Around and around, like a ferris wheel on fire, as her voyeur watches from the broken control panel below. Around and around, and around and around. Again and again. Around and around.

Dawn awakens Hazel. It stirs her from the black funhouse of madness. Her arm feels weak, as if she has slept on it, but her wrist hurts. Her finger burns. As she stares down at the agonized digit, she sees her sheets are stained with blood. She can feel the terrible red menstruation and the realization that she slept through the bleeding. But there is a worse discovery. Spirals. Spirals of blood. Drawn in own her blood. By her hand. Again and again. Around and around.

Hazel: It’s. It’s. Vampires are real. Vampires. Are. Real. It’s an impossible, a ludicrous assertion. She has no material evidence whatsoever to support it. Except the spirals a madwoman has scribbled in her own menstrual blood. A madwoman. That’s the only sane conclusion.

I’ve gone insane. I am insane.

She repeats the words out loud, a slow and steady whisper. “I’ve gone insane.” In fact, she feels almost eerily calm. “Less than 17% of all autistic adults are able to live independently. I’m not one of them after all.” It’s a relief, isn’t it, knowing she was mistaken. That she just dreamed up the whole silly thing. She’s just another person with ASD so hopelessly caught up in her own mad little world so as to be unable to function within normal society. The proof is right there, on the sheets. The spirals scrawled in her own menstrual blood. Fixation with patterns. That’s so much more believable than vampires being real. Isn’t it?

“Isn’t it?” she asks aloud. “It is. There’s no such thing as vampires. But there are lots of people with ASD who are trapped in their own mad little worlds and committed to mental institutions.” She nods to herself, as if it’s all been explained, as if it all makes perfect sense now. It’s comforting, to hear her own voice say it.

“I guess I should tell Mom I won’t be going in to work today.”

Mom. Mom, who was so happy last night about finalizing the Keystone-Nostrum deal, making partner, moving to some alpha global city. Mom, who was being…

“She wasn’t being,” Hazel says aloud. “She does valuable work for them. Valuable, important work.” For the company whose name means ‘quackery.’ Oh come on, Hazel. You think that a couple of warring multinational corporations give a rat’s ass about your mom, or anything else beyond next quarter’s profits? Now who’s being insane?

That was in her head. They were killing her. Tearing her apart. Maybe they don’t intend to follow through on their promises. Maybe the deal is simply likely to blow up in her mom’s face. It doesn’t matter. They were devouring her. Ripping her limb from limb.

She pauses, turning as if to face the Edenic serpent that whispered in her ear last night. Some Native American cultures revere the serpent as a symbol of wisdom, not treachery. Maybe that’s what it was trying to tell her. That she should sabotage this deal? Maybe. Or just investigate it. Find out who really stands to benefit, and who’s going to get thrown under a bus.

“Vampires,” she repeats dazedly. Vampires are real.

She’s not facing that fact. Not here and not now. She buries it in the same deep, dark place she banished all thought of Ophelia Griswold’s journal. Those warring beasts, Nostrum and Keystone, threaten her mother. ROSEWATER isn’t involved.

She looks around the empty hotel room, still blue with dawn’s feebly encroaching light. “Sorry. I don’t think I have time to go to a mental institution right now.”

“I have to stop them,” she says simply.

“I have to find out.”

Kurt: Mind’s Eye


GM: Kurt feels something soft envelope him, and a long dark tunnel sink away on all side. Total darkness soon follows, like the thick velvet curtains closing on the third act.

But it proves merely an intercession.

More and more, time’s linearity seems illusory—a mere suggestion or old-fashioned tradition rather than intractable law. He can only guess at the degree and direction of time’s passage. But time has passed. His injuries are still prominent, but rest has brought some respite from pain, even partial recovery. The darkness, however, remains.

Kurt: Kurt tries to move his aching body and feels around him, for his glasses, making sure everything is still intact, all while trying to adjust his eyes to the darkness.

GM: Kurt’s bent glasses are still on his face. It feels like towels are around him and…

…limbs. Still warm, but cooling. Unmoving.

Kurt: Kurt gets up quickly, jerking away from the apparent limbs with adrenaline-filled horror. He tries to feel his way around the room and searches for a light source.

GM: As Kurt tries to stand and explore the ‘room’, he hears a pair of voices that sound nearby, yet muffled.

“Are you sure he’s the right one?” a woman’s voice asks.

“Hell if I know for sure, Chippy,” Ridley answers in his Texan drawl between what sounds like chewing, “But he was there, exactly where and when she said.”

“And you trust her,” the woman states in a tone just short of inquiry and just shy of derision.

“Does a rattlesnake hate blizzards?” Ridley asks rhetorically, “You bet your bottom dollar, Yankee. Yes, I trust her with my life, afterlife, and whatever’s after that.”

“Ironic words, Agent Ridley, and perhaps foolish.”

“I’ve been called helluva lot worse, Chippy.”

“I have no doubt.”

More chewing. “Are you going to keep ogling my dinner or finally muster the courage to ask it out on a date?”

“All that grease and fat could clog the Suez Canal. Frankly, I am aghast and amazed that your heart hasn’t waved the white flag.”

“A true marine doesn’t know the meaning of retreat or surrender.”

“Just tactical retrograde.”

Ridley laughs, resumes chewing, but then stops and asks, “You saying you don’t?”

“What?” replies the woman.

Trust her. Are you saying you don’t?”

A long pause. “I have my orders.”

The conversation, however, is interrupted as Kurt stands up and hits his bandaged head against the ‘ceiling’, his movement causing the ‘room’ to overturn. Kurt spills out of the industrial, castor-wheeled laundry bin. A couple of towels and a tan arm slump out behind him.

“Rise and shine, ace,” Ridley says, mid-bite into a nearly finished chicken-fried steak. Ridley remains dressed in his suit and tie, though the latter is obscured by a makeshift napkin bib.

Kurt’s reception from the other speaker is less… sunny.

An athletic, well-toned woman pivots, draws, and places a .45ACP Springfield so close to his face that its black barrel blurs. In other circumstances, the woman might be considered rather beautiful, if not markedly striking, with her piercing pale green eyes and flowing brassy hair. Presently, she wears two tank-tops, sweat pants, running shoes, and a neck-strung FBI badge. But in the current circumstances, the woman is nothing if not fearsome. Looking into the woman’s eyes, Kurt has no doubt the gun’s safety is off.

ridley_partner.png

“Hands behind your head—face down on the ground! Now!” she snaps. In the brief second Kurt has to decide his next and potentially last move, he realizes that he is inside some kind of moving truck or similar vehicle, a single camp-light set under a flipped over milk crate.

Kurt: Kurt looks like a deer in headlights; he goes to ground rather clumsily, shaking hands moving to the back of his head. “What is happening?” he asks hoarsely, eyes darting toward the horrific sight of the limb. He looks like a terrified child. He can feel another lump forming where he hit his head against the laundry bin, but ignores it to look at Ridley with confused, pleading eyes. “What is happening, Ridley?” he asks the only familiar figure.

GM: “Ease up, Chippy,” Ridley replies sardonically, “Go for your run, and don’t forget to pick up your tampons.”

The woman’s expression becomes all the more steely—but at least now is directed towards Ridley. “That’s two,” she says coldly.

“Two of what?” he asks.

She doesn’t answer him. She does, however, slip her gun into a concealed holster.

Kurt: Kurt sighs in relief.

GM: Pulling down her shirts to better hide the bulge, she then clicks her watch and speaks into it, “Lolly, permission requested to patrol perimeter.”

A moment later, the vehicle’s back door slides up, revealing a plump woman in a caterer’s outfit and equally conspicuous beehive. “Coast is clear, Hickory,” she says, wheezing a bit at the effort. ‘Chippy’ jumps out of the van, and the second woman waves to Ridley and Kurt before closing the sliding down the door.

Kurt: Kurt looks up at the woman and then to Ridley with questioning eyes. He still has his hands behind his head and is laying face downward. “Can I sit up now?” he asks a little timidly.

GM: As if noting Kurt’s awkward kowtowing, Ridley barks, “Of course, ace!” He then rights the industrial laundry bin, a loud thump echoing inside as the limb and towels are stuffed back inside. He then helps Kurt up, offers him a milk crate for a seat, and passes the teen a take-out box from Witiko Falls sole ‘Chinese’ restaurant, the Cat’s Meow Buffet. “It’s sweet and sour pork,” the suited man says in his drawl. “Hope you like it.”

Kurt: Kurt looks at the preferred food with a weak albeit grateful smile. Notably, Kurt’s stomach rumbles at the sight of the food—and he accepts the meal all too readily. “Thank you, Ridley,” he says quietly, attempting to eat with shaky hands. He adds, “Thank you for saving me, too.” He’s just a scared, confused kid. Very confused.

GM: “You’re welcome, ace,” Ridley says as he then opens a small cooler, “You want a Coke or beer; I might have one last grape soda?” Likely to Kurt’s initial alarm, the van rumbles into life and begins moving.

Kurt: Kurt’s gut does indeed tighten, and he pauses before answering. “I wouldn’t mind a coke, sir,” he answers, trying to keep a brave face—and failing every now and then as he wrestles with his growing anxiety. “I think my ma would kill me if I accepted a beer.” He still feels pangs of guilt as he thinks about his mother. It reaches his eyes.

GM: “What ma doesn’t know won’t hurt her,” Ridley says, grinning. But he pops off the cap of the ice-cold glass cola bottle and hands it to the teen all the same. “You’re a family man, ace. I respect that.”

Kurt: Kurt frowns, replying, “But I left my mother and sister behind like that.” He then reaches for the cola, adding a small ‘thank you’. “Who were those other people?” Kurt asks after taking a sip, wanting for the longest time to wet his dry throat. I have so many questions.

GM: “What other people?” Ridley says as he resumes chewing his chicken-fried steak.

Kurt: “The one you called ‘Chippy’?”

GM: “Oh. Her. Yeah, she’s my co-worker. Junior partner. Don’t worry about her, she’s got PBS.”

Kurt: “What’s PBS?” Kurt asks.

GM: More chewing. “Perpetual Bitch Syndrome,” Ridley answers. “It’s communicable, but only if you have a license to buy Maxi Pads.”

Kurt: Kurt snorts at that, hurting his sides a little—but he grins and bares it. “Well,” Kurt says with a sip of his coke, “–at least she’s nice to look at.”

GM: Ridley looks off. “I’ve had uglier.” He then looks back at Kurt. “So what about you?”

Kurt: Kurt looks a little put on the spot from the question. “I’ve only ever been with one girl,” he answers, shyly. He then finds himself looking at the laundry bin with its now hidden limb, chewing slowly.

GM: Ridley snorts beer out of his nose. He quickly mops his mouth and face with the napkin bib. “Hell, son, I meant ‘what about you’, like ’what’s your story?’” He laughs, “Let’s start with your name, and then you can tell me how good a notch she was on your belt.”

Kurt: Kurt chuckles a little, understanding dawning on him. “Oh,” he says rather plaintively, “um, oops?” He then continues, “Kurt Crawford. Um, I go to Witiko Falls High School. I am in my last year… I guess?”

GM: “On the basketball team, right? Mean hook shot?”

Kurt: Kurt blinks, realizing that Ridley was aware of him. “Yeah. I was hoping to get a scholarship. Before, well, all of this.” He indicates the cast around his foot and then makes a motion toward… well, everything.

GM: “It’s how I made it,” Ridley says. “Any other scouts try to recruit you yet?”

Kurt: “No,” Kurt says with a hint of disappointment, “which isn’t good to say the least, my family isn’t exactly well-off, and I was hoping to go to a good school to help ease the load. This doesn’t help,” he says, indicating his broken foot. Nonetheless, he forces a smile. “So, you said you ‘made it’,” Kurt goes on, “where’s ‘it’ exactly?”

GM: “Well, Kurt–,” Ridley says as he finishes the last bite of his steak, “–despite all evidence to the contrary, I think your luck’s about to change.”

Kurt: Kurt laughs, disbelievingly. He eats some more Chinese food and drinks some more Coca Cola. “I guess it can’t get any worse.”

GM: Ridley’s smile drops. “Don’t tempt the devil, ace, when he’s already mad as hell.”

Kurt: Kurt pauses for a moment, then finishes chewing. He takes another sip from his drink. “What exactly is going on, Ridley?” he asks. He looks at the limb once again.

GM: The limb is now securely back in the industrial bin. But that plastic barrier doesn’t stop Kurt from remembering what it looked like—what it felt like.

“Hell if I know. I get paid to break hands caught in the cookie jar. Oh, you mean right now. We’re going to see a friend. Someone who might be able to help with all of… this,” he adds gesturing vaguely at Kurt. “I could tell you more, but then I’d have to kill you.” Kurt gets the notion that Ridley, despite his grin, isn’t joking.

Kurt: Kurt chuckles a little nervously. Things are all kinds of fucked up at the moment, he thinks to himself.

GM: “So tell me about your family, ace.”

Kurt: Kurt frowns, thinking about his mother and sister once again. “There’s my mother, my older sister, and me—and I guess my dad, too—but my dad’s been sick since my freshman year. It was my mother and sister we left behind at the hospital,” Kurt adds, looking up at Ridley with some measure of guilt. “Do you know what happened back there, are they all right?”

GM: Ridley rubs his buzz-cut scalp and sets his beer back into the cooler. He sighs heavily, and actually looks around as if to make sure no one is in the van. No one else. Or no one else alive. He looks Kurt in the eye and taps his skull. “Sigma waves. Usually, it just snaps people into a grand mal seizure, and they’re sure to wake up with a killer headache like a Mardi Gras hangover. But they should be fine.” Ridley tries to reassure him with a smile, but Kurt can’t help but hear the dangers lurking words like ‘usually’ and ‘should’.

Kurt: “I hope you’re right,” Kurt replies, trying to hide his worry. “Thank you for giving a shit, Ridley. Seriously, things are so screwed up, and I have no idea what’s happening.” Kurt adds, “Maybe when I meet that person you’re taking me to I can get some answers.”

GM: The man across from him nods, then extends his hand. “Rex,” he says, “Rex Ridley, but you can call me whatever you like, ace.”

Kurt: Kurt shakes Ridley’s hand. “Nice to meet you, Rex.”

GM: “Likewise, ace. I like how you drive into the paint.”

Kurt: Kurt laughs, shaking his head. “Thanks, I think.”

“Do you have any family, Rex?” he asks, making more conversation.

GM: Agent Ridley is quiet for a long time. His eyes glaze over like fresh wet asphalt poured over old, crumbling, treacherously pitted concrete. “A daughter,” he says in a flat monotone. “I lost her once. I aint ever gonna lose her again. Ever.”

Kurt: “What happened?” Kurt stops chewing, eyes looking up at Ridley with interest.

GM: Ridley’s eyes retain the unnerving shark-like deadness, his gaze swimming in its own dark abyss:

“It was April in Vietnam, 1975. April didn’t mean the same thing there as it does here. No ‘showers bring flowers’ nursery rhyme. Instead, it’s about devil-hell heat and the god-forsaken signs of monsoon season. I’m talking storms of biblical proportion, the kind that can make a man gut his own sister if it gets him a seat on Noah’s evac boat.”

He pauses, and stares down at his hands.

“April 29th. Saigon. Cowards in Congress had allowed Văn Tiến Dũng to back us into a corner. After Charlie blew the shit out of Tân Sơn Nhứt Airport, Air America was popping reds with Operation Frequent Wind as Option 4 kicked in. All day long, we heard, ‘The temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising’ followed by I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas blaring from the embassy speakers.”

“I remember Frank turned to me and said, ’We’re all trapped in an unpublished story by Kafka’. At the time, I didn’t know who the hell Kafka was, save that he sounded like a commie, so I just said, ‘Well, he writes shit’. Frank didn’t disagree—he was too busy singing the Christmas song to some Japanese journalists who were dropping bricks in their pants.” Ridley wipes away spittle from the corner of mouth. “22 Gia Long Street. That’s where we were, on the rooftop. It was like Genesis and the Flood. Except God was the Deputy Chief, the ark was split up into a bunch of AH-J1 Cobras, and the animals didn’t come two by two, but by the thousands. And God didn’t need thousands. Didn’t even want hundreds.”

“My mama-san and daughter, they weren’t Vietnamese. They were from Laos—that country we said we weren’t in, where we weren’t dumping pajama-BBQ payloads ever 8 minutes and smuggling out heroin by the white bullion brick-load. That’s why God said they couldn’t come. They knew too much.” He stares down at his hands, as if unsure of whose they are. “We had to clean house. God had a saying: Cleanliness is next to godliness.”

Ridley continues to stare at his hands with a vacuity and private torment he does not share.

Kurt: Kurt looks at his own hands, blood-smeared as they are, wondering about his own ‘cleanliness’. The guilt of leaving his mother and sister behind riddles his mind. He then looks up, forcing a smile as he tries to comfort Ridley. “I suppose we all battle demons inside of us. I think I was literally fighting my own, though,” Kurt adds grimly, trying to wrap his head around that.

GM: Ridley doesn’t reply. It’s as if tearing the story from his soul leaves it barren, and his psyche has to slowly trickle back into his body.

The van rumbles down the road, and eventually off smooth asphalt onto dirt tracks that rock its inhabitants and threaten to overturn the industrial clothing hamper and milk crates. By the time Ridley nurses the last of his beer and seems to regain his Texan grit, the van comes to a stop. “Get behind the bin,” Ridley calls as he draws a very mean-looking sidearm.

Kurt: Kurt obeys with a blanched expression on his face; the sight of the firearm causes the tiniest of squeaks to emanate from his sore, tired–of–crying throat.

GM: The van door pops open, revealing a now nighttime sky. A beehive blocks out Venus’ light. The woman to whom it belongs waves at Kurt. “We’re here!” she says, beaming. Ridley nods to Kurt. “It’s okay, ace. You’re safe.” He helps Kurt out of the van.

Kurt: Kurt looks a little perplexed at first before tentatively accepting Ridley’s help out of the van. “Thanks.” He looks around, trying to figure out where he is, eventually settling his gaze on the woman with the strange hairdo, standing awkwardly with his blood-marred features and broken leg wrapped up in a grimy cast. I wonder if people’ll still want to sign it, he thinks cynically.

“Hi,” he greets the woman. He isn’t too sure about introducing himself too formally.

GM: The portly middle-aged woman is dressed in caterer’s garb, accented by blue eye-shadow and cupcake earrings. Kurt’s surroundings are perhaps no less expected. The dark blue commercial food van is marked with big block letting in yellow that read: BEEHIVE CATERING

The food-van is parked in the middle of a camping ground. The mountains tower around them, cutting off the edges of cold-bright stars, while the air is sweet with pine. Yet, for the injured basketball star who is used to the densely packed Saint Enoch’s, Falls High, and the Scarecrow, the surroundings speak of isolation, a sense that mankind is a stranger that nature precariously tolerates. Fortunately, there is another nearby anchor of ‘civilization’: an old chrome airstream sits parked on a cleared camping lot.

airstream.png

Kurt: “Where are we?” he asks quietly, more-so to himself. But it’s aloud and put out there for everybody present to hear.

GM: “The great outdoors!” Ridley says with a grin. “Watch out for moose pies.”

Kurt recognizes the catering van. It, or at least one like it, has been driving around town for the past few weeks. The caterers, a retired couple named the Kimballs, moved into Witiko Falls, and have been going door to door, business to business, to see if anyone wants their services. The particular camping ground and specific airstream RV, however, are mysteries to the young man.

“Chippy” emerges from a shadow that Kurt thought was a tree trunk. “Perimeter’s clear,” the blond-haired woman says, her shirts stained with sweat.

“Hope you enjoyed your run,” Ridley says with a grin, leading Kurt to the airstream.

“You should try it someone; it might help unclog all the steak-fat in your brain,” she retorts, her eyes not meeting his, but remaining vigilantly fixed upon the surroundings—save for one equally probing glance at Kurt.

“Fat’s good for the brain; it’s what makes up your white matter.” He knocks on his buzz-cut scalp. He then helps Kurt hobble inside the airstream. “Come on, Kurt. Time to see the Wizard.”

Meanwhile, the other agent starts chopping some wood—with lethal accuracy, Kurt notes.

Mrs. Kimball says farewell and jumps back into her catering van, its engine starting and its tires rolling away as the RV door closes.

Kurt: Kurt is only too happy to get away from Chippy; her laser-like stare causes the young man to look down at his feet in anxiety. “I only hope the wizard is as wonderful as Chippy’s cutthroat demeanor.”

GM: The RV door now closed, Kurt thinks he hears a pause in the woman’s metronomic wood-splitting.

Ridley guffaws. “Tin-man, or woman, is all-heart.”

Kurt: “I will have to take your word for it,” Kurt replies, “but I get the impression I remind her of an old boyfriend or something. She keeps looking at me like I am a flying monkey.” Kurt adds, “Anyway, who’s this ‘wizard’?”

GM: Kurt’s first comment causes Ridley to pause and stare at the injured teen. Kurt’s cranial catheter leaks a single drop before Ridley replies: “Let’s hope not.” Ignoring or choosing not to yet reply to the youth’s question, he then helps Kurt sit down into a booth bolted to the back of the curved end of the RV. “Take a load, ace. You’ve had a helluva day.”

RV_interior.jpg

A copy of today’s newspaper as well as the weekly End of Times Cereologist sit neatly folded between two tea-cups. The riveted ceiling curves down to a small curtain window and an old-time radio. The rest of the RV is equally antiquated, as if decorated by a time-traveler with multiple personality disorder whose fashion sense is eclectic but not quite tasteless.

Unlike the short teen, the tall agent seems buffoonishly overgrown for the RV. He has to stoop down as he makes his way through the airstream’s mid-section, where a thick green curtain bisects the trailer. Ridley gives Kurt a wink. “Now don’t go peeking behind the curtain, ace.” Before the youth can reply, Ridley slips behind the emerald-Oz partition. A few moments later, a typewriter starts to madly clang from behind the muffling fabric. The typing shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. Eventually, even ‘Chippy’ stops chopping.

Kurt: As Kurt waits, he flits through the newspaper, reading up on the latest gossip to pass the time. He partially listens to the radio, but for the most part takes the time to mull over the day’s events—things are fucked—it seems like an easy conclusion. He ignores the type-writing. He eventually rests his head on the small table, closing his eyes. He tries to rest his brain, but worrying thoughts keep swimming through his mind, drowning him.

GM: The daily newspaper glosses over Kurt’s eyes, and its tiny print gives him a headache—which is only compounded by the now-banally mundane articles on Homecoming and Halloween socials. It must be what Alice felt when she looked back at the quotidian world from the other side of the mirror –or what Dorothy felt towards grey Kansas after her homecoming’s initial euphoria faded.

The radio barely has reception, and the static does nothing for Kurt’s nascent migraine. Laying his head down only makes it worse, as he literal feels his cerebral fluid sluice against his skull and the shifting pressure of his neural ventricles—an uncanny, eerie sensation to say the least. And so he’s left picking up yesterday’s print of the End of Times Cerealogist, a local pseudo-newspaper-bulletin for those interested in crop-circles. The current issue’s headline reads: MESSAGES FROM SPACE—OR TO SPACE?

The ‘feature’ article of the two-sided, single page bulletin details an ‘exclusive’ interview with one Professor Emeritus of Paranormal Psychology, Anastasia Eggleston, and Rupert Chadfish, a self-described “apostate ufologist.” Dr. Eggleston argues that “It’s arrogant to assume that there’s nothing that our science hasn’t already explained—especially when our ancestors understood it well enough to survive for generation well before the ‘Age of Reason’. World mythology is full of powerful beings who communicate with humanity through natural signs. We’ve really turned a blind eye to those kinds of oracles; is it any wonder they might be resorting to larger demonstrations?”Dr. Eggleston then goes on to describe how various mythologies around the world viewed the stars and the blackness around them as supernal beings.

Mr. Chadfish, on the other hand, asserts that crop circles are human-made signals, meant to be seen in the heavens—not by gods or aliens, but by other humans. Each “genuine” circle contains a secret message, meant to be received by “people” looking at satellite imagery. He described potential suspects including various clandestine government agencies (ROSEWATER is not explicitly mentioned, but it is strongly implied) and supernatural conspiracies that run the gamut of Atlanteans to mummies to Vril-ya in Antarctica. Chadfish concludes by warning cereologists and paranormal hobbyists of the danger of creating crop-circles, as they might inadvertently relay an oil strike from OPEC, a civil war in Africa, a CIA-sanctioned assassination, or a nuclear attack.

The ‘journalist’ lets his or her reader decide which view “cleaves nature closest as its joints.”

The back page, however, has a photograph of Kurt’s father. It is xeroxed picture of an older newspaper clipping, a photo taken before his ‘accident’ when he won a prize at the county fair for best personal micro-brew back in 1986. Kurt Jr. almost doesn’t recognize him. Despite the sloppy reproduction and granular print, it’s his father’s vitality and smile that makes him seem so unfamiliar. So… alien. But the headline takes away any doubt. It reads: WHERE IS KURT CRAWFORD NOW?

The article goes on to regurgitate his father’s life story in a sensational fashion, but then deep-sea dives into rampant speculation about the relation between crop-circles and Kurt Sr.‘s ’condition’. Equally egregious are the incredibly far-fetched and insulting accusations that “Kurt Crawford remains missing to this day. It is unclear whether aliens, governmental agents, or worse are responsible for his abduction, and for what fell purposes they have taken him. It also is unclear why his family carries on the charade that he is still among us—while not letting the proper para-scientific authorities have access to the ‘body’ they claim belongs to the abducted farmer. Are they deluded by loss and grief, or is there a more sinister motive?”

Kurt: “Pricks,” Kurt mumbles, reading over the story. He feels an old, twisted knot tightening in his stomach. He used to love reading these types of newspapers when he was younger, but admittedly after his experience with his father, the novelty wore off as more pressing realities settled in—but insensitive rags like this certainly don’t re-inspire an interest.

Kurt then thinks more about his father, reminded of his responsibilities, the fact is that he left his mother and sister behind at the hospital in a messy state. The thought of his father’s well-being springs quickly to mind. He needs to get out of here. He needs to get back to his dad. He needs to figure out what happened to his mother, his sister, and stop bullshitting around. Whatever the fuck is going on, it’s not that important, he thinks, getting up to leave the RV. At least not as important as my family.

Kurt tries his best to tiptoe to the RV’s door, something pretty difficult considering his cast leg, and hopefully come up with a plan to get back to the town limits of Witiko Falls.

GM: In the wake of Kurt’s clunking hobble, the typewriter stops. Ridley’s southern drawl echoes out from behind the green curtain. “Everything all right, ace? Commie-MSG busting your gut?”

Kurt: Kurt composes himself, trying to come up with a half-truth. “I read something about my dad and needed some air,” Kurt says, voice clearly sounding a little emotional.

GM: “Sorry, Kurt,” Ridley says. “Unless you’re going to blow your cookies, just crack a window. We’ll be done here real soon. Or soon-ish.” He grunts. “Uncle Sam was a little lacking when it came to my secretarial training.”

Kurt: Kurt frowns, inner turmoil warring within him, as he clunks over a couple times towards a window, trying to find one that’ll creak open. He looks outside and studies the trees for a moment.

Sorry, Dad, he thinks to himself ruefully, glancing at his broken leg wrapped in cast, but I am totally fucked right now. His jaw sets hard, trying to control the pangs of guilt and sense of imprisonment.

GM: “That’a boy,” Ridley calls back approvingly. The typewriter resumes its clanging song. Outside, the trees are study of darkness, their sharp edges touched by the fat moon rising.

Time passes. The typewriter clangs on till it too passes into the recesses of the mind, forgotten like the sensation of one’s long-worn clothes. Indeed, when the typing does stop, it takes Kurt a few moments to recognize its absence, the nakedness in his ears. And that’s when the curtain opens to reveal the ‘wizard’.

He’s smaller than Oz’ version, a short Asian man with dark eyes set into circle-framed glasses, sallow-waxy skin, a delicate toothbrush mustache, and bristly black hair that is combed down in a severe fashion. The man, who is even shorter and slimmer than Kurt, is dressed in a conservative light gray suit, white shirt, and an incongruently bright green tie printed with tiny silver hot-air balloons.

The_Wizard.png

The little man bows.

“Welcome, Kurt Crawford. You are little boy, and I the thin man,” he says in a Japanese accent. “The fat man will come last. But not tonight.” His voice is raspy as he sits down across from Kurt. There are few adult men Kurt has to look down at, but ‘Mr. Thin’ is one of them. “Tea, Mr. Crawford?”

Kurt: The hot air balloons imprinted on the man’s tie instantly grab Kurt’s attention. He smiles thinly, wryly; sitting across from the ‘Wizard’, Kurt makes no secret about studying the man’s odd, eclectic appearance. Nonetheless, he still retains some measure of politeness despite his unabashed staring. “Yes please, sir,” he says in a simple tone.

GM: Ridley appears, holding a steaming teapot. He gives a respectful nod to Mr. Thin and a wink to Kurt. The former takes the teapot and with a well-honed politesse, pours the tea into both of their cups. Ridley takes back the pot and slips back behind the curtain.

Kurt: “Thank you,” Kurt says, staring into his tea a little more longingly than normal. He may not be a big tea drinker, but after everything that has happened, Kurt’s throat certainly feels parched. He remarks idly, “It’s been a while since I drank a cup of tea.”

GM: “My ancestors have a proverb: ‘If a man has no tea in him, he is incapable of understanding truth and beauty.’” The bespectacled man laughs raspily. “They also allowed themselves to be herded like animals into barbed pens and swayed into performing seppuku and kamikaze.”

The ‘Wizard’ then turns over his tea-cup and spills it onto the table with startling precision. The spill uncannily resembles a rendering of a house with two legs emerging from it.

“Impressive,” the man says in his accented, scratchy voice.

Kurt: Kurt takes a sip of tea in answer to the Wizard’s comment. As he is continuing to drink, however, Kurt has to try his best not to spit some out once the strange, Asian man pours the contents of his own cup onto the table, creating a distinct image.

Wow, Kurt thinks to himself. Who are these people? “Yeah. Impressive.” Kurt mulls over the image, then asks rather bluntly: “What does it mean? Um. Sir.”

GM: “It means, Mr. Crawford, that you are very special. And now, a great many people will be very interested in you.”

Kurt: Kurt pauses, absorbing the man’s statement in its weight. “I have been seeing some really weird things lately,” he admits, slightly relieved about divulging something rather personal and a bit more truthful for the first time in a few days, being his sudden loss of sanity. “I am probably losing my mind, and even before the car crash I always felt a little weird, but it’s gotten a lot more real. I am not just feeling things now. I am now seeing things I could only feel before my car accident.”

I sound fucking nuts.

“This sounds crazy, sorry,” he says aloud, keeping his spoke words a lot more polite and G-rated.

GM: ‘Mr. Thin’ takes out a handkerchief from his pocket and sets it down upon the spilled tea. He doesn’t wipe it up as much as let it soak slowly before folding it intricately into an origami-esque slipper. He then regards Kurt with his circular glasses. “The disorientation is normal. You’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Kurt: Kurt smiles softly and a small chuckle escapes. “Ridley and I were talking about the Wizard of Oz only a few minutes ago.” His brow then furrows in realization. “Where am I?” he asks.

GM: Mr. Thin replies, “In our current base of operations, whose location, for everyone’s safety, must remain clandestine.” He adds, “But perhaps there is another question I can answer more freely.”

Kurt: Kurt guesses clandestine means the Wizard wants the location to remain a secret, but without a dictionary on him, Kurt isn’t entirely sure if that is the case. “I have so many questions.” He chuckles.“Who are you people?”

GM: “Yes,” Mr. Thin answers with another impressed smile. “We are WHO.”

Kurt: “Do you mean like the band?” Kurt asks, humorously.

GM: The ‘wizard’ raises his eyebrows in confusion. “No… I mean the World Health Organization. You might say our current operations fall under a ‘gray bag budget’, but my particular ‘department’ is in charge of ensuring treaties such as the Nuremberg Code and the Helsinki Accords are not trespassed—or if they are, the trespassers are brought to justice. Agent Ridley and his partner are on loan from their original agencies as part of an international task force to which I, and now you, belong.”

“We had received reports indicating that extralegal human experimentation is occurring in Witiko Falls, but prior to Agent Ridley’s rendezvous with you, we have been unable to make substantial progress in our investigation. Your town, Mr. Crawford, is quite insular and less than trustworthy of outsiders. Moreover, we do not yet know the full extent of the illicit experimentations, its full purposes, or all who are so involved and their respective level of culpability. As I said, Mr. Crawford, your town is quite suspicious of outsiders—which is why we need your help.”

Kurt: Kurt nods his head, recalling a past paper he wrote about the World Health Organization for his Civics class earlier this year. He received a B+. Substantially better than the year beforehand, having recycled the paper from last year for World History, only getting a C-.

GM: Agent Ridley awkwardly slips a head out from the green curtain, and says with a grinning drawl, “We need an inside man, ace.”

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” Mr. Thin says with an equally thin smile.

Kurt: Kurt smiles in return, but a creeping, frightful feeling runs up Kurt’s spine. He realizes something. “Do you know about my dad?” he asks. “I mean, what happened to him?” The talk of human experimentation frightens Kurt, but he can’t help connecting the dots.

GM: “Your father. Yes, Kurt Crawford, Sr.,” he answers, picking up the cereologist bulletin. “Would you help us find out?”

Kurt: “Absolutely.” Kurt looks very serious when it comes to his father. Then Kurt pauses, looking a little unsure of himself. “How do I, um, help you guys, though?”

GM: The Asian man begins to reply, but stops and regards Ridley, whose buzz-cut scalp is still sticking our of the curtain. “You might as well sit down and join us,” Mr. Thin says to the tall covert ops agent. “We can hear you panting like a biscuit-addicted dog in there.”

The Texan smiles, pops out from the curtain, and awkwardly tries to fit inside the small space. He looks eagerly to his seeming superior.

“By all means,” the little man says magnanimously.

“Okay, Kurt,” Ridley says, his eyes alight with a whiskey-like shine that has nothing to do with liquor. “We need eyes and ears on the inside. Or as the boys in Langley like to call it, we need a rabbit.”

Taking both sets of saucers and cups, Ridley elaborates, “It’s like this. Let’s say you are this cup, the rabbit, and other people in town are this other cup. So as you move and interact with this other cup and others like it, we not only watch you, see, we’re this saucer over here, but we can watch other saucers, like this one, who are watching you. Or as hunting folk call it, you’re the bird-dog that flushes out the birds so we can pop ’em.”

Mr. Thin coughs and adds, almost apologetically, “It’s a bit more complicated and carefully orchestrated than that.”

Ridley shrugs.

The ‘Wizard’ elaborates. “Initially, Mr. Crawford, you will need to remain here for a few days. Beyond running your credentials and providing you with some training on how to operate in the field, we need to particularly inspect who starts looking for you. As that will help us better understand who is… a cup or a saucer.”

“See?” Ridley asks with a smirk.

Mr. Thin continues. “After that period, you will return home and resume your daily living—just as if you had never met us. However, we will be in clandestine contact with you, although we will initially be quite removed so as to better allow us to observe without ourselves being seen.”

“Rabbit. Bird-dog,” Ridley says in summary.

“We will brief you in greater details over the coming days, but yes, I suppose that is a sufficient summary.” He then turns to regard Kurt full in the face. His hands steeple, his small finger tips lightly touching his thin toothbrush mustache. “There are many lives at stake, here, Mr. Crawford, and by choices already out of our hands, yours is now one of them. If there was any other way, I would not so involve a civilian minor.” He leans in. “But Mr. Crawford, there are terrible things happening in Witiko Falls. Terrible things.”

Kurt: Kurt audibly gulps. “I am doing this for my father–,” he replies, quickly adding, “–and whoever else is being affected. I only want my father to be cured and my family to be back to normal again. Do you think that’s possible?” he asks.

GM: The ‘Wizard’ closes his eyes. “Perhaps, Mr. Crawford. To undo the atrocities of the past may be beyond our reach. To prevent the atrocities of the future, though, lies firmly within our grasp.”

Ridley places a heavy, sinewy hand on Kurt’s shoulder. “We’ll do our best, ace.”

Kurt: Kurt looks down at the saucers and cups of tea with a sad face. “I understand. I thought I should at least ask,” he mentions idly, then looking up a little hopefully, “But, um, if there’s no cure for my dad, not saying that there couldn’t be—there’s still a chance, right?—is there any way you guys can help my family out financially?”

“I am not asking for much!” Kurt tries to interject before they answer. “It’s just, y’know,” he makes a few motions with his hands, trying to find the right words, “After what happened with my dad, things have been really, really hard. I am working hard. My ma is working really hard, too. We’re barely scraping by…”

GM: Ridley doesn’t remove his supportive hand from Kurt’s shoulder. The tall agent looks to his shorter superior.

The latter relies slowly in his raspy, deeply accented voice. “Mr. Crawford. You ask a fair question. Now, inarguably, compensation for your forthcoming efforts and sacrifice is just. And let us furthermore suppose that we have the necessary discretionary funds allocated in our gray bag budget.” His delicate fingers tap on a cup and saucer. “Now suppose that you return inexplicably with monies sufficient to raise your family out of their financial mire. What would be the logical response or supposition from the other cups and saucers?”

Kurt: He answers glumly, shoulders slumping a little. “I understand. They’d obviously be suspicious. And, um, your cover might be blown.”

GM: Ridley gives Kurt’s shoulder a squeeze. “Yeah, ace, a bad rabbit puts us and your whole town in the pot.” He withdraws his hand and turns to face his superior. “But what if we ju-”

Mr. Thin almost hisses back, “Shizukani!”

Ridley immediately bows his head.

“Nevertheless,” Mr. Thin then replies sadly but calmly to Kurt, “After the culprits are apprehended, you will receive your compensation.”

Kurt: Kurt nods, then looks up. “I understand you said that I might be in danger doing this, and I am smart enough to know that means my actual life is in danger,” he replies, looking deadly serious. “So if worse comes to worse—for me—can you still ‘compensate’ me through my family?” He looks Mr. Thin in the eyes, trying to gauge his sincerity on the matter. Fuck, Kurt swears to himself, you’re talking about dying. What are you getting yourself into?

GM: A gleam catches in Ridley’s eye. “See?” he asks his boss, clearly touched. “He’s a god-damned hole in one ace!”

Mr. Thin closes his eyes and appears to be similarly moved. He picks up his tea-stained handkerchief and dabs at one eye. “Your loyalty to your family is commendable. You have my sacred pledge, Mr. Crawford.” Placing his glasses back on his face, he regards Kurt for a long time before adding:

“Welcome to our family.”

Previous: Chapte 4

Next: Chapter 6

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