Witiko Falls: Disillusion

Phase I, Case File 1.04


Hazel: Attila Awakens


10.06.1998, Tuesday night

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

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

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

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

Hazel: Hazel wordlessly continues to.

GM: There’s another less tentative knock.

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

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

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

“Yes,” Harvey answers tersely.

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

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

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

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

GM: “No,” Harvey says.

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

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

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

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

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

“Undersheriff Bauman,” Harvey corrects.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel: “A comforter is always a comfort.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lacewood.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel: She pauses, slowly turning around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GM: Harvey agrees between a slow-savored spoonful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GM: “What? Oh, sure thing, sport.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post acies

Read inter acies

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

Hazel: Ley lines?

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

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

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

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

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

But ROSEWATER causes her a great deal more consternation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GM: Its heading still waits for her.

Post acies

Read inter acies

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

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

But the darkness is unpredictable as well as patient.

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

Kurt: Mind’s Eye


10.07.1998, Wednesday morning

GM: The night dies slowly.

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

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

Migrate or die.

Flee.

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

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

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

5:00 AM

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

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

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

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

st_enoch.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

sin_bone.jpg

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

lincoln.jpg

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

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

road.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screaming. Terrified, agonized screams.

Hazel: Strange Collisions


10.07.1998, Wednesday morning

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

Hazel: Inarticulate grogging noises sound from her bed.

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

Hazel: “Mmmf, Dad… ’zit time…?”

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

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

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

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

GM: “We don’t know,” he says grimly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A human hand.

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

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

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

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

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

Fighting 31
JFK 1983

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

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

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

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

GM: And her father is out there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel: Hazel instinctively screams, kicks, and flails, but she has as much muscle as a twig and never received any combat training. She yells something about how they don’t, they don’t have any, they can’t–but the law doesn’t matter at the point of a gun either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel: Hazel turns and throws it against the seat.

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

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

Spooks1.jpg

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

Harvey all but growls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m on my way,” Harvey responds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“He knocked.”

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

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


Outside, a cold dawn rises.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other tape.

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

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

GM: But the Devil calls it in the end.

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

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

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

Hazel: I’m sure they did.

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

“Boss?” comes the dispatch’s voice.

Hazel: Hazel says nothing aloud and continues to stare out the broken window. The cold air makes her thankful for the blanket.

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

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

The undersheriff gives his daughter a pained glance.

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

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

Hazel: Yes. It likely can.

“Uh. What happened to him?” Hazel finally asks. In real bad shape. Does that mean anything to her She’s had so much else on her mind these past few days. Her father’s deal with the devil. The danger her mother may be in. ROSEWATER. Her nocturnal visitor. Everything else. Now her ex-boyfriend is another all-too likely victim of the government’s cover-up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GM: The grave-angels have no answer.

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

church.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Osterg.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harvey nods.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harvey keeps writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel: Hazel frowns, thinking. “…no, Daddy. I shouldn’t be late for work. You go over the scene and have Lowder pick me up, I’m sure you’ll do a fine job of things. I can always look it over later. Even if I won’t be able to gather as many findings, I can corroborate with you.”

But that isn’t all of it. Hazel already has plans to blow off her time while she’s at work researching several other topics of personal interest. She should spend at least some of her workday on actual work. She doesn’t like the thought of approaching Leo for answers on Layne without doing the job he’s hired her to do.

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

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

GM: Harvey nods.

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

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

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

Now, however, it is a clue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll tell you later.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christina_Lowder.png

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

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

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

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

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

GM: Tina laughs. “That obvious, huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GM: “Sorry,” Tina apologizes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her dad is mixed up in this business.

And her mom possibly is too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congratulations, ROSEWATER.

I have autism. And you just became my newest obsession.

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