Witiko Falls: Disillusion

Phase I, Case File 1.06

Brook: Skin Deep

10.07.1998, Wednesday noon

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

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

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

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

“What is it this time, Mr. Barnes?” Nurse Tyson asks shortly.

Brook: Brook gives poor Broomfield a sympathetic nod as he walks in and gives up the note without a fuss. He really doesn’t like it any more than the nurse and gives her a sigh when she reads it over.

GM: Nurse Tyson snatches the librarian’s note with one of her mannish hands. “Hmmph,” she snorts as she reads the note. She crumples and tosses it in a waste bin, then gestures to a cabinet drawer. “Find something in there, Mr. Barnes.”

Brook: Brook doesn’t argue, blood is apparently the worst thing even in this messed-up town. He heads to the drawer and looks for a pair of pants to grab.

GM: Inside the drawer are a number of WFHS athletic T-shirts, shorts, and sweatpants seemingly stolen from the 1970s. For someone of Brook’s size, the pickings are slim.

Brook: Jesus, these are going to be tight. Sweatpants are the best option, and he throws a pair over his shoulder. Shirts… nothing that he’s going to try to squeeze on.

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

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

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


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

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

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

But for now, he takes his keys and opens up his glovebox, tossing in the ticket for safe keeping while he’s at it. There sits his sidearm, holstered in an old leather chest holster. It’s… his size. .460 Bone collector. Brook just reaches for the notebook underneath it. Just a quick little jot down. 48-13-66. 1960 Psycho. He’ll know what it meant.

He pulls the page out and pushes it into his pocket, then locks the glove box and closes the door to his truck, reclining the seat all the way back and grabbing the portable clock he has in there. It’s set to digitally scream an alarm every day 15 minutes before the end of lunch bell. This is the last period before lunch, as well. Checking it over, he flicks on to the radio and hears a song he can’t identify fade out. His mother never changes his programs on the station. It plays continuous music until she makes an announcement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh love love love, love would be like

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

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

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

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

And suddenly there is a scratching at the window.

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

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

It is love love is coming, love has come

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

Wickedness, yes, love would be like wickedness.

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

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

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

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

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

He falls upon her.

Love is like dying.

Hazel: Attila Awakens

10.07.1998, Wednesday afternoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quaestor: Where am I?

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

Quaes: Why am I here?

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

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

Adver: What is meant by “Supernal?”

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

Adver: How then can this be known?

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

Adver: Name the threefold way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adver: And how is it reflected in the individual?

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

Adver: Speak now of the second emanation.

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

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

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

Adver: And how is it reflected in the individual?

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

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

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

Adver: So how then can this be?

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

Adver: Answer me or die!

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

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

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

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

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

Adver: After what fashion?

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

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

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

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

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

Adver: Quaestor?

Quaes: …

Adver: Quaestor?

Quaes: …

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

Adver: Yet still I hunger….

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

Hazel: The book softly snaps closed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t,” comes a deep male voice.

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

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

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

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

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

GM: And then, as if some divine comedy is at play, Hazel’s phone rings. It’s Mrs. Sperle, saying she has a call from Sheriff Bauman. A moment later, she’s talking to her father: “Hey, kiddo, how you doing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GM: Lance’s class arrives shortly thereafter.

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

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

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

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

Hazel: Hazel sighs. She’s tempted to give everyone after-school detention, but… well, it’s apparent that they really do care about their teacher and aren’t simply being snots. And she really isn’t much good at reading people until her foot is stuck squarely in her mouth, so maybe it’s no surprise the class has gotten out of hand. Hazel attempts to call the unruly teenagers to order, promising to explain everything she can about Lance—which is more explanation than most adults can give them, as she and her father were actually there at the crime scene and saw him get hauled away on a stretcher.

They don’t know what happened. Father Ostergaard had the fortune to arrive on the scene and administer timely first aid that will have saved Lance’s life–if he pulls through. Hazel states how she wishes she could give them an answer there, but she honestly doesn’t know. No one knows, Principal Gorczak included–storming her office isn’t going to help anyone, Lance most of all. But if they would like to do that, Hazel will allow them to use the rest of class time to work on “get well” cards for their teacher. Those would surely brighten his day when he wakes up and saw how they’ve all been thinking about him.

Hazel tries to connect the narrative to a larger life lesson about how sometimes you just don’t have all the answers, and bad things happen for no reason at all. All you can do is try to make the best of things after they do.

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

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

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

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

GM: Again.

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

She does briefly wonder if Jake could help her research. He seems well-read, many hands make light work, and she needs to get as much research done as fast as she can. But… no. He’s just a student. She can’t risk bringing him in. And plus, frankly, she’d rather not comb through those sorts of books around a horny teenage boy.

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

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

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

Hazel: Hazel likewise wishes him a courteous goodbye. She leaves her things un-packed and the library’s lights still on for now, but locks the doors and sets out for Uncle Leo’s office.

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

GM: “Enter,” her uncle replies.

Hazel: Hazel promptly does so.

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

Hazel: Hazel assumes a seat as she observes the room’s decor. “If you would indulge my personal curiosity for a moment, Vice Principal, may I inquire as to the gold’s personal significance to you?”

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

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

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

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

Hazel: Hazel turns the grim decoration over. Some part of her almost expects to catch the reflection of a man who made the world tremble against the glint of the desk lamp’s light.

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel: Hazel turns over the pyrite lump, holds it under the desk lamp’s glare, then pulls it away. “Gold shines at any angle, not merely when ‘the light is right.’”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel: Now it is Hazel’s turn to look moderately surprised. Uncle Leo usually isn’t off in his judgments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel: Damn it. Damn it. Hazel thinks fast–-tries to think fast. “Oh, look at the time. I have rambled. I am certain we both have other things to do, before the day is out. I would consider it acceptable to discuss Layne Tuttle at a future, more convenient date. Would you find it likewise, Vice Principal? I am certain she can wait one more day to potentially begin working in the library.”

Damn it, I should have just called him earlier to postpone our talk until after tomorrow. The obvious solution occurs to her far too late to be useful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

True name

Hazel: Hazel is initially unsure what to reply to that statement. It is the name on her birth certificate, and if there is power in true names being secret, as many occult principles suggest, hers has already been diluted. Then again, how often do people use their middle names, much less people who have two? Attila is in her email address, but it’s unlikely that anyone besides her family knows that it’s part of her full name.

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

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

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

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

Hazel: “Ah… do I look unwell?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

With a great deal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

GM: “A modern woman.”

Hazel: “An environmentally concerned one too.”

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

There’s a subtle purr.

“Fat-boy says ‘hello’, Hazel.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe even too close.

Kurt: Mind’s Eye

10.07.1998, Wednesday afternoon

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

But it proves merely an intercession.

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

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

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

…limbs. Still warm, but cooling. Unmoving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have no doubt.”

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

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

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

“Just tactical retrograde.”

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

“What?” replies the woman.

Trust her. Are you saying you don’t?”

A long pause. “I have my orders.”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Two of what?” he asks.

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

Kurt: Kurt sighs in relief.

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

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

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

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

Kurt: Kurt looks at the proffered food with a weak if grateful smile. His stomach rumbles at the sight and he accepts the meal all too readily. “Thank you, Ridley,” he says quietly, attempting to eat with shaky hands. He adds, “Thank you for saving me, too.”

He’s just a scared, confused kid. Very confused.

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

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

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

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

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

Kurt: “The one you called ‘Chippy’?”

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

Kurt: “What’s PBS?” Kurt asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kurt: Kurt laughs, shaking his head. “Thanks, I think. Do you have any family, Rex?” he asks, making more conversation.

GM: Agent Ridley is quiet for a long time. His eyes glaze over like fresh wet asphalt poured over old, crumbling, treacherously pitted concrete. “A daughter,” he says in a flat monotone. “I lost her once. I ain’t ever gonna lose her again. Ever.”

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

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

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

He pauses, and stares down at his hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GM: The van door pops open, revealing a now nighttime sky. A beehive blocks out Venus’ light. The woman to whom it belongs waves at Kurt. “We’re here!” she says, beaming.

Ridley nods to Kurt. “It’s okay, ace. You’re safe.” He helps the young man out of the van.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kurt: Kurt is only too happy to get away from Chippy; her laser-like stare causes the young man to look down at his feet in anxiety. “I only hope the wizard is as wonderful as Chippy’s cutthroat demeanor.”

GM: The RV door now closed, Kurt thinks he hears a pause in the woman’s metronomic wood-splitting.

Ridley guffaws. “Tin-man, or woman, is all heart.”

Kurt: “I will have to take your word for it,” Kurt replies. “But I get the impression I remind her of an old boyfriend or something. She keeps looking at me like I am a flying monkey.” He then adds, “Anyway, who’s this ‘wizard’?”

GM: Kurt’s first comment causes Ridley to pause and stare at the injured teen. Kurt’s cranial catheter leaks a single drop before Ridley replies: “Let’s hope not.” Ignoring or choosing not to yet reply to the youth’s question, he then helps Kurt sit down into a booth bolted to the back of the curved end of the RV. “Take a load, ace. You’ve had a helluva day.”


A copy of today’s newspaper as well as the weekly End of Times Cereologist sit neatly folded between two tea-cups. The riveted ceiling curves down to a small curtain window and an old-time radio. The rest of the RV is equally antiquated, as if decorated by a time-traveler with multiple personality disorder whose fashion sense is eclectic but not quite tasteless.

Unlike the short teen, the tall agent seems buffoonishly overgrown for the RV. He has to stoop down as he makes his way through the airstream’s mid-section, where a thick green curtain bisects the trailer. Ridley gives Kurt a wink. “Now don’t go peeking behind the curtain, ace.” Before the youth can reply, Ridley slips behind the emerald-Oz partition. A few moments later, a typewriter starts to madly clang from behind the muffling fabric. The typing shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. Eventually, even ‘Chippy’ stops chopping.

Kurt: As Kurt waits, he flits through the newspaper, reading up on the latest gossip to pass the time. He partially listens to the radio, but for the most part takes the time to mull over the day’s events–_things are fucked_–it seems like an easy conclusion. He ignores the type-writing. He eventually rests his head on the small table, closing his eyes. He tries to rest his brain, but worrying thoughts keep swimming through his mind, drowning him.

GM: The daily newspaper glosses over Kurt’s eyes, and its tiny print gives him a headache–which is only compounded by the now-banally mundane articles on Homecoming and Halloween socials. It must be what Alice felt when she looked back at the quotidian world from the other side of the mirror –or what Dorothy felt towards gray Kansas after her homecoming’s initial euphoria faded.

The radio barely has reception, and the static does nothing for Kurt’s nascent migraine. Laying his head down only makes it worse, as he literal feels his cerebral fluid sluice against his skull and the shifting pressure of his neural ventricles–an uncanny, eerie sensation to say the least. And so he’s left picking up yesterday’s print of the End of Times Cerealogist, a local pseudo-newspaper-bulletin for those interested in crop-circles. The current issue’s headline reads: MESSAGES FROM SPACE–OR TO SPACE?

The ‘feature’ article of the two-sided, single page bulletin details an ‘exclusive’ interview with one Professor Emeritus of Paranormal Psychology, Anastasia Eggleston, and Rupert Chadfish, a self-described “apostate ufologist.” Dr. Eggleston argues that, “It’s arrogant to assume that there’s nothing that our science hasn’t already explained–especially when our ancestors understood it well enough to survive for generation well before the ‘Age of Reason’. World mythology is full of powerful beings who communicate with humanity through natural signs. We’ve really turned a blind eye to those kinds of oracles; is it any wonder they might be resorting to larger demonstrations?” Dr. Eggleston then goes on to describe how various mythologies around the world viewed the stars and the blackness around them as supernal beings.

Mr. Chadfish, on the other hand, asserts that crop circles are human-made signals, meant to be seen in the heavens–not by gods or aliens, but by other humans. Each “genuine” circle contains a secret message, meant to be received by “people” looking at satellite imagery. He described potential suspects including various clandestine government agencies (ROSEWATER is not explicitly mentioned, but it is strongly implied) and supernatural conspiracies that run the gamut of Atlanteans to mummies to Vril-ya in Antarctica. Chadfish concludes by warning cereologists and paranormal hobbyists of the danger of creating crop-circles, as they might inadvertently relay an oil strike from OPEC, a civil war in Africa, a CIA-sanctioned assassination, or a nuclear attack.

The ‘journalist’ lets his or her reader decide which view “cleaves nature closest as its joints.”

The back page, however, has a photograph of Kurt’s father. It is xeroxed picture of an older newspaper clipping, a photo taken before his ‘accident’ when he won a prize at the county fair for best personal micro-brew back in 1986. Kurt Jr. almost doesn’t recognize him. Despite the sloppy reproduction and granular print, it’s his father’s vitality and smile that makes him seem so unfamiliar. So… alien. But the headline takes away any doubt. It reads: WHERE IS KURT CRAWFORD NOW?

The article goes on to regurgitate his father’s life story in a sensational fashion, but then deep-sea dives into rampant speculation about the relation between crop-circles and Kurt Sr.‘s ’condition’. Equally egregious are the incredibly far-fetched and insulting accusations that “Kurt Crawford remains missing to this day. It is unclear whether aliens, governmental agents, or worse are responsible for his abduction, and for what fell purposes they have taken him. It also is unclear why his family carries on the charade that he is still among us–while not letting the proper para-scientific authorities have access to the ‘body’ they claim belongs to the abducted farmer. Are they deluded by loss and grief, or is there a more sinister motive?”

Kurt: “Pricks,” Kurt mumbles, reading over the story. He feels an old, twisted knot tightening in his stomach. He used to love reading these types of newspapers when he was younger, but admittedly after what happened to his father, the novelty wore off as more pressing realities settled in–but insensitive rags like this certainly don’t re-inspire an interest.

Kurt thinks more about his father, reminded of his responsibilities and the fact is that he left his mother and sister behind at the hospital in a messy state. The thought of his father’s well-being springs quickly to mind. He needs to get out of here. He needs to get back to his dad. He needs to figure out what happened to his mother, his sister, and stop bullshitting around. Whatever the fuck is going on, it’s not that important, he thinks, getting up to leave the RV. At least not as important as my family.

Kurt tries his best to tiptoe to the RV’s door, something pretty difficult considering his cast leg, and hopefully come up with a plan to get back to the town limits of Witiko Falls.

GM: In the wake of Kurt’s clunking hobble, the typewriter stops. Ridley’s southern drawl echoes out from behind the green curtain. “Everything all right, ace? Commie-MSG busting your gut?”

Kurt: Kurt composes himself, trying to come up with a half-truth. “I read something about my dad and needed some air,” he says, voice clearly sounding a little emotional.

GM: “Sorry, Kurt,” Ridley says. “Unless you’re going to blow your cookies, just crack a window. We’ll be done here real soon. Or soon-ish.” He grunts. “Uncle Sam was a little lacking when it came to my secretarial training.”

Kurt: Kurt frowns, inner turmoil warring within him, as he clunks over a couple times towards a window, trying to find one that’ll creak open. He looks outside and studies the trees for a moment.

Sorry, Dad, he thinks to himself ruefully, glancing at his broken leg wrapped in cast, but I am totally fucked right now. His jaw sets hard, trying to control the pangs of guilt and sense of imprisonment.

GM: “That’a boy,” Ridley calls back approvingly. The typewriter resumes its clanging song. Outside, the trees are a study of darkness, their sharp edges touched by the fat moon rising.

Time passes. The typewriter clangs on till it too passes into the recesses of the mind, forgotten like the sensation of one’s long-worn clothes. Indeed, when the typing does stop, it takes Kurt a few moments to recognize its absence, the nakedness in his ears. And that’s when the curtain opens to reveal the ‘wizard’.

He’s smaller than Oz’ version, a short Asian man with dark eyes set into circle-framed glasses, sallow-waxy skin, a delicate toothbrush mustache, and bristly black hair that is combed down in a severe fashion. The man, who is even shorter and slimmer than Kurt, is dressed in a conservative light gray suit, white shirt, and an incongruently bright green tie printed with tiny silver hot air balloons.


The little man bows.

“Welcome, Kurt Crawford. You are little boy, and I the thin man,” he says in a Japanese accent. “The fat man will come last. But not tonight.” His voice is raspy as he sits down across from Kurt. There are few adult men Kurt has to look down at, but ‘Mr. Thin’ is one of them. “Tea, Mr. Crawford?”

Kurt: The hot air balloons imprinted on the man’s tie instantly grab Kurt’s attention. He offers a thin, wry smile; sitting across from the ‘Wizard’, Kurt makes no secret about studying the man’s odd, eclectic appearance. Nonetheless, he still retains some measure of politeness despite his unabashed staring. “Yes please, sir,” he says in a simple tone.

GM: Ridley appears, holding a steaming teapot. He gives a respectful nod to Mr. Thin and a wink to Kurt. The former takes the teapot and with a well-honed politesse, pours the tea into both of their cups. Ridley takes back the pot and slips back behind the curtain.

Kurt: “Thank you,” Kurt says, staring into his tea a little more longingly than normal. He may not be a big tea drinker, but after everything that has happened, his throat certainly feels parched. He then idly remarks, “It’s been a while since I drank a cup of tea.”

GM: “My ancestors have a proverb: ‘If a man has no tea in him, he is incapable of understanding truth and beauty.’” The bespectacled man laughs raspily. “They also allowed themselves to be herded like animals into barbed pens and swayed into performing seppuku and kamikaze.”

The ‘Wizard’ then turns over his tea-cup and spills it onto the table with startling precision. The spill uncannily resembles a rendering of a house with two legs emerging from it.

“Impressive,” the man says in his accented, scratchy voice.

Kurt: Kurt takes a sip of tea in answer to the Wizard’s initial comment. Once the strange Asian creates a distinct image by pouring the contents of his cup onto the table, however, Kurt has to try his best not to spit some out the tea.

Wow, he thinks to himself. Who are these people? “Yeah. Impressive.” He mulls over the image, then asks rather bluntly, “What does it mean? Um. Sir.”

GM: “It means, Mr. Crawford, that you are very special. And now, a great many people will be very interested in you.”

Kurt: Kurt pauses, absorbing the man’s statement in its weight. “I have been seeing some really weird things lately,” he admits, slightly relieved about divulging something rather personal and a bit more truthful for the first time in a few days, being his sudden loss of sanity. “I am probably losing my mind, and even before the car crash I always felt a little weird, but it’s gotten a lot more real. I am not just feeling things now. I am now seeing things I could only feel before my car accident.”

I sound fucking nuts.

“This sounds crazy, sorry,” he says aloud, keeping his spoke words a lot more polite and G-rated.

GM: ‘Mr. Thin’ takes out a handkerchief from his pocket and sets it down upon the spilled tea. He doesn’t wipe it up as much as let it soak slowly before folding it intricately into an origami-esque slipper. He then regards Kurt with his circular glasses. “The disorientation is normal. You’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Kurt: Kurt smiles softly and a small chuckle escapes. “Ridley and I were talking about the Wizard of Oz only a few minutes ago.” His brow then furrows in realization. “Where am I?” he asks.

GM: Mr. Thin replies, “In our current base of operations, whose location, for everyone’s safety, must remain clandestine.” He adds, “But perhaps there is another question I can answer more freely.”

Kurt: Kurt guesses clandestine means the Wizard wants the location to remain a secret, but without a dictionary on him, he isn’t entirely sure if that is the case. “I have so many questions,” he chuckles. “Who are you people?”

GM: “Yes,” Mr. Thin answers with another impressed smile. “We are WHO.”

Kurt: “Do you mean like the band?” Kurt asks, humorously.

GM: The ‘wizard’ raises his eyebrows in confusion. “No… I mean the World Health Organization. You might say our current operations fall under a ‘gray bag budget’, but my particular ‘department’ is in charge of ensuring treaties such as the Nuremberg Code and the Helsinki Accords are not trespassed–or if they are, the trespassers are brought to justice. Agent Ridley and his partner are on loan from their original agencies as part of an international task force to which I, and now you, belong.”

“We had received reports indicating that extralegal human experimentation is occurring in Witiko Falls, but prior to Agent Ridley’s rendezvous with you, we have been unable to make substantial progress in our investigation. Your town, Mr. Crawford, is quite insular and less than trustworthy of outsiders. Moreover, we do not yet know the full extent of the illicit experimentations, its full purposes, or all who are so involved and their respective level of culpability. As I said, Mr. Crawford, your town is quite suspicious of outsiders–which is why we need your help.”

Kurt: Kurt nods his head, recalling a past paper he ‘wrote’ about the World Health Organization for his Civics class earlier this year. He received a B+. Substantially better than last year, when he originally wrote the paper for World History and only got a C.

GM: Agent Ridley awkwardly slips a head out from the green curtain, and says with a grinning drawl, “We need an inside man, ace.”

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” Mr. Thin says with an equally thin smile.

Kurt: Kurt smiles in return, but a creeping, frightful feeling runs up Kurt’s spine. He realizes something. “Do you know about my dad?” he asks. “I mean, what happened to him?” The talk of human experimentation frightens Kurt, but he can’t help connecting the dots.

GM: “Your father. Yes, Kurt Crawford, Sr.,” he answers, picking up the cereologist bulletin. “Would you help us find out?”

Kurt: “Absolutely.” Kurt looks very serious when it comes to his father. Then he pauses, looking a little unsure of himself. “How do I, um, help you guys, though?”

GM: The Asian man begins to reply, but stops and regards Ridley, whose buzz-cut scalp is still sticking our of the curtain. “You might as well sit down and join us,” Mr. Thin says to the tall covert ops agent. “We can hear you panting like a biscuit-addicted dog in there.”

The Texan smiles, pops out from the curtain, and awkwardly tries to fit inside the small space. He looks eagerly to his seeming superior.

“By all means,” the little man says magnanimously.

“Okay, Kurt,” Ridley says, his eyes alight with a whiskey-like shine that has nothing to do with liquor. “We need eyes and ears on the inside. Or as the boys in Langley like to call it, we need a rabbit.”

Taking both sets of saucers and cups, Ridley elaborates, “It’s like this. Let’s say you are this cup, the rabbit, and other people in town are this other cup. So as you move and interact with this other cup and others like it, we not only watch you, see, we’re this saucer over here, but we can watch other saucers, like this one, who are watching you. Or as hunting folk call it, you’re the bird-dog that flushes out the birds so we can pop ’em.”

Mr. Thin coughs and adds, almost apologetically, “It’s a bit more complicated and carefully orchestrated than that.”

Ridley shrugs.

The ‘Wizard’ elaborates. “Initially, Mr. Crawford, you will need to remain here for a few days. Beyond running your credentials and providing you with some training on how to operate in the field, we need to particularly inspect who starts looking for you. As that will help us better understand who is… a cup or a saucer.”

“See?” Ridley asks with a smirk.

Mr. Thin continues. “After that period, you will return home and resume your daily living–just as if you had never met us. However, we will be in clandestine contact with you, although we will initially be quite removed so as to better allow us to observe without ourselves being seen.”

“Rabbit. Bird-dog,” Ridley says in summary.

“We will brief you in greater details over the coming days, but yes, I suppose that is a sufficient summary.” He then turns to regard Kurt full in the face. His hands steeple, his small finger tips lightly touching his thin toothbrush mustache. “There are many lives at stake, here, Mr. Crawford, and by choices already out of our hands, yours is now one of them. If there was any other way, I would not so involve a civilian minor.” He leans in. “But Mr. Crawford, there are terrible things happening in Witiko Falls. Terrible things.”

Kurt: Kurt audibly gulps. “I am doing this for my father,” he replies before quickly adding, “and whoever else is being affected. I only want my father to be cured and my family to be back to normal again. Do you think that’s possible?” he asks.

GM: The ‘Wizard’ closes his eyes. “Perhaps, Mr. Crawford. To undo the atrocities of the past may be beyond our reach. To prevent the atrocities of the future, though, lies firmly within our grasp.”

Ridley places a heavy, sinewy hand on Kurt’s shoulder. “We’ll do our best, ace.”

Kurt: Kurt looks down at the saucers and cups of tea with a sad face. “I understand. I thought I should at least ask,” he mentions idly, then looks up a little hopefully. “But, um, if there’s no cure for my dad, not saying that there couldn’t be–there’s still a chance, right?–is there any way you guys can help my family out financially?”

“I am not asking for much!” Kurt tries to interject before they answer. “It’s just, y’know.” He makes a few motions with his hands, trying to find the right words. “After what happened with my dad, things have been really, really hard. I am working hard. My ma is working really hard, too. We’re barely scraping by…”

GM: Ridley doesn’t remove his supportive hand from Kurt’s shoulder. The tall agent looks to his shorter superior.

The latter relies slowly in his raspy, deeply accented voice. “Mr. Crawford. You ask a fair question. Now, inarguably, compensation for your forthcoming efforts and sacrifice is just. And let us furthermore suppose that we have the necessary discretionary funds allocated in our gray bag budget.” His delicate fingers tap on a cup and saucer. “Now suppose that you return inexplicably with monies sufficient to raise your family out of their financial mire. What would be the logical response or supposition from the other cups and saucers?”

Kurt: Kurt’s shoulders slump a little as he glumly answers, “I understand. They’d obviously be suspicious. And, um, your cover might be blown.”

GM: Ridley gives Kurt’s shoulder a squeeze. “Yeah, ace, a bad rabbit puts us and your whole town in the pot.” He withdraws his hand and turns to face his superior. “But what if we ju-”

Mr. Thin almost hisses back, “Shizukani!”

Ridley immediately bows his head.

“Nevertheless,” Mr. Thin then replies sadly but calmly to Kurt, “after the culprits are apprehended, you will receive your compensation.”

Kurt: Kurt nods, then looks up. “I understand you said that I might be in danger doing this, and I am smart enough to know that means my actual life is in danger,” he replies, looking deadly serious. “So if worse comes to worse–for me–can you still ‘compensate’ me through my family?” He looks Mr. Thin in the eyes, trying to gauge his sincerity on the matter.

Fuck, Kurt swears to himself, you’re talking about dying. What are you getting yourself into?

GM: A gleam catches in Ridley’s eye. “See?” he asks his boss, clearly touched. “He’s a god-damned hole in one ace!”

Mr. Thin closes his eyes and appears to be similarly moved. He picks up his tea-stained handkerchief and dabs at one eye. “Your loyalty to your family is commendable. You have my sacred pledge, Mr. Crawford.” Placing his glasses back on his face, he regards Kurt for a long time before adding:

“Welcome to our family.”

Hazel: Attila Awakens

10.07.1998, Wednesday afternoon

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

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

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

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

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

GM: “Ouch.”

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

GM: “Cards?” her father asks.

Hazel: “Ah. Some pretext.”

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

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

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

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

GM: “Preaching to the choir, sport.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel: Patch things up.

Does… Dad…?

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

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

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

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

This is all too much. Too sudden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hope he has not stood us up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel: Hazel moves to follow the priest.

GM: Harvey does likewise.

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

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

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

GM: “I often walk these grounds, to pray and commune,” the priest says. “As the Pslamist said, ‘Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me: for my soul trusteth in thee: yea, in the shadow of thy wings will I make my refuge, until these calamities be overpast’. And after this morning’s tribulations,” he explains as he hikes up the slope. “My heart was heavy, and I sought solace.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

GM: The priest pauses. “Last night, I heard a similar sound. In the darkness and still heavy with sleep, I told myself that I had merely imagined it, that the sounds which awoke me were simply dredged up older, darker memories that I have not learned to fully give up to God. In the light of day, I now believe otherwise,” he adds, stepping aside to reveal a gravestone that has been cracked down its center.

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

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

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

GM: Catherine Moore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anything more specific?” her father probes.

“He often sought my counsel and services.”

Hazel: Uh. I… hope not about me?

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

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

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

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

GM: Reverend Ostergaard looks over at Hazel, his eyes saddened with the weight of a millstone. She sees that he wants to help; she even has a creeping feeling that the ‘counsel’ somehow relates to her.

“Yes, child.”

Harvey grimaces.

Hazel: “The counsel relates to me,” Hazel states frankly.

GM: “I cannot, will not break the seal,” the priest says, clearly torn by his desire to help but resolute in his duties. “But I can share that he retains fond feelings for you and would not wish to hurt you, child.”

Hazel: “I say as much for your benefit, Father, to assure you we are still on the right track. We’ll piece together the full picture one way or another.” Hazel grows quiet, though, upon hearing the reverend’s second statement.

GM: “Is there anything else you can tell us, Father, like perhaps the last time you spoke with him, prior to his attack?”

The priest nods, obviously relieved that this detail he can freely share. “Yes, it was just yesterday. He came shortly after the four o’clock service, alone and asking to see me, but I was leading a bible study group. I asked if we could speak later, and he agreed to return in three hours. He never did. This is relatively common with my parishioners, so I did not think anything of it.”

Hazel: Hazel frowns. She dislikes others not following through on commitments, however trifling.

GM: “And how would you describe his state when you spoke with him, that last time?”

Hazel: A potentially quite pertinent detail she should have thought to ask, but Hazel has always been better with scenes than witnesses.

GM: The pastor seems to reflect on the question. “He seemed eager to see me, troubled even, but not terribly so. He did seem relieved once we set a new time to meet.”

Hazel: “Perhaps it would benefit him–and us–for you to still do so when and if he regains consciousness in the hospital, Father.”

GM: The reverend nods. “I have already been to his bedside, but I will surely return when he awakens. I might suggest you do the same, child. It would mean a lot to him.”

Harvey looks at his daughter, coughs, flips closed his notepad, and puts it and his pen in his pocket.

Hazel: Hazel stiffens a bit at that. “I will consider it.”

GM: Her dad shakes the priest’s hand. “Thank you once again, Father. There may be a chance that the perpetrator will return, either to this grave or the road in front of the church. If you see anything, please call us right away. Do not engage him.”

The priest frowns.

Hazel: Hazel regards him speculatively. Her father’s advice is prudent.

GM: “Look, Father, once we catch this guy, you will have plenty of time to look after the welfare of his soul–behind bars. In the meantime, my job is to look after the welfare of this community, and that means keeping people safe –including and especially you, Father.”

“Very well, Sheriff,” the priest concedes. Reluctantly.

Her dad raises a hand to stop Hazel from correcting the priest at this moment. He then adds, “I’ll try to have my deputies patrol the area as much as possible.”

Hazel: At her dad’s signal, she (reluctantly) bites the correction back. “Thank you for your help once again, Father.”

GM: “Peace be unto you,” the priest says, kindly looking at Hazel before returning to his church.

Once the priest is gone, Harvey leads Hazel back to the road. “C’mon, there’s something else I want to show you.”

Hazel: Hazel follows after him, her curiosity piqued.

GM: “Remember how Father Ostergaard said he thought he saw tail-lights but wasn’t sure? Well look here. I came back to the scene once it was dark and did a look-over,” Harvey says as he points down to a section of the road, just down from where the attack occurred. Hazel spots it almost immediately. Tire-marks pealing away from the curb.

Hazel: “Those are tire-marks, all right.”

GM: “It looks like the car was traveling behind Lance’s truck, stopped, and then raced off down the road. I’m betting one of Lottie’s porkchop sandwiches that its taillights were the ones Father Ostergaard saw.” But there’s another clue that Hazel spots. A small oil-spot, one no more than a day old. It could have been from the ambulance, but it’s in the wrong location.

Hazel: “That’s a bet I’m well-prepared to take up, Daddy. On top of this oil spot. Well, take up if I were you.”

GM: He smiles. He pauses, then flips open his notebook and reviews his jottings. “So what do you think happened? What’s your take on all this?”

Hazel: Hazel furrows her brow. “We’ve established many of the particulars of the attack itself. What is less clear, however, is the motive. Ideally, Lance will wake up to give us a name and a face. In lieu of that, our next recourse is to follow up on the vandalized grave’s name. I want to know how this perpetrator thinks. What motivates him. Presses his buttons. The attack against Lance could have happened for any number of reasons, but his–or her–reaction to the grave points to a far more specific one.”

GM: Harvey taps his notepad like a metronome dictating the pace of his thoughts. “It’s a crime of passion.”

Hazel: Hazel nods. “What happened at the grave was not premeditated.”

GM: “You don’t take a baseball bat to somebody like that, then whack a tombstone into two for any other reason. It’s not like a gun. A bat is personal, primal. Especially when you keep swinging it again and again when a guy is down. As I said, it’s a primal act–and so the motive’s got to be primal too. So it’s not about money or anything less… what’s the term… visceral.”

Hazel: “I also wish to know how long the car was driving behind Lance’s truck. The attack certainly seems to have been an impassioned one, but was this the culmination of some long-simmering resentment? Was Lance a specific target or simply one of opportunity?”

GM: “Good question. What do you make of the passenger door?”

Hazel: “Though if Lance was a target of opportunity, rather than specific dislike, I suspect we would be dealing with a true psychopath, or at least highly unstable individual, whose antisocial behavior may well have been observed prior to now. In lieu of that, the dislike against Lance was personal.”

Hazel frowns in thought again at her father’s question. “Someone else closed that door, after Lance got out. He would have shut it properly.” The frown deepens. “I am uncertain why they would. Maybe Lance had to shut it in a hurry, but… the way the vehicle was parked suggests time was a non-issue.”

GM: “So you think he had a passenger? Someone he dropped off at the church–or who got out at the church after he parked?”

Hazel: “He got out in a hurry. He did not park in one. That’s likely when the altercation began–or at least finally occurred to him as dangerous.”

GM: “So there might be a third guy–or girl.”

Hazel: “Yes. How long was that car following him, I wonder?”

GM: He looks off. “You mentioned that Lance’s class was pretty banged up about him being missing. Do you recall if any of them seemed especially upset–or particularly not upset?”

Hazel: Hazel strains her memory, thinking back.

GM: Hazel’s memory proves sharp, however, her ability to correctly identify and interpret others’ emotions is no better now than earlier today–and that isn’t saying much.

Hazel: “No,” she sighs. “I can’t. You know I’ve never been much good at reading people, Daddy. Still, theorizing can only take us so far. Beyond looking into Catherine Moore, I would suggest we next investigate the places Lance frequented and the people he associated with. Find out if there was anyone with reason to dislike him. A standard enough police procedure, yes, but the motive here appears personal, as you have observed. So we should look into his personal affairs.” A slight grimace follows. “You should be the one to interview his father. I’ll handle things at school. I could well end up managing his class again.”

GM: “Yeah… I’ve been ‘handling’ Brody,” her father says sardonically as he opens Hazel’s door.

Hazel: “…successfully?” Hazel asks with another grimace as she gets inside.

GM: He shrugs. “As well as anyone can with a widower whose only son is in a coma and might not make it. But yes, better to leave him to me than to you.”

Hazel: “…yes. That does figure.”

GM: He shuts her door, then climbs in his. “I wonder if any of his students are baseball players…” he mumbles out loud as he hits the ignition, puts on his seatbelt, and pulls away.

Hazel: “That makes me wonder too. Makes me want to confirm even more.”

Hazel: Conversation eventually turns to less grim matters on the ride back to Red Louse Lane. “I was thinking some more about Beatrice, Daddy,” Hazel says. A grin is creeping over her features.

GM: “Hmmm,” her father says apprehensively.

Hazel: “Oh, I’m not taking back that apology. I fully intend to keep it and honor it. That’s how I’m going to destroy her.”

GM: “Uh…”

Hazel: “You remember in seventh grade, that girl Mackenzie, who made fun of how I spoke, how I dressed? And you and Mom said I should just ignore her? Because the more upset I got, the more ammunition I’d just be giving her?”

GM: “Well, I told you to pop her once. Hard. Mom told you to ignore her.”

Hazel: “Making your reversal of stances all the more ironic now.”

GM: “Schoolyard scraps are quite different from slugging an old lady, sport.”

Hazel: “But no, Mom’s way was better. The only thing you can’t do is let them ignore you.

GM: “What?”

Hazel: “I’m not going to be an invisible presence in her life at all. I’m going to mow my lawn when I get home, just like I told her. I’m going to knock on her door when I’m done, and ask if she could please inspect it.”

GM: “Well… that sounds… good,” her dad says, tentatively.

Hazel: “Just to be sure if I’m not violating any ordinances.” The mania in Hazel’s eyes is only growing brighter.

GM: And it is that look, rather than her words, which seems to be causing Harvey so much fret.

Hazel: “I’m going to leave a gift basket on her doorstep the next day, thanking her for her assistance. I’m going to find out her birthday, and leave her a cake on that occasion too.”

GM: “So you’re going to kill her with kindness?” her dad asks apprehensively. “But not literally. Right?”

Hazel: Hazel bursts out laughing maniacally. “Oh, Daddy, don’t you see it. I am going to be a perfect neighbor. I am going to give her NOTHING to complain about. And when she does complain, I’ll sit there, happily listen to it all, and thank her so much for her time and assistance. Before I ask if there’s anything else I can do to be a better neighbor.”

GM: “That… sounds… good? Yes?” It’s not clear whether he’s asking her or himself.

Hazel: The look on Hazel’s face is likely little different from the one on Attila’s own when he found his pretext to invade the Western Empire. “Daddy. I am going to give her NOTHING to complain about. I can’t think of a more cruel punishment I could possibly inflict.”

GM: “Uh… or it could make her… happy?”

Hazel: “It’s what she gets off on. Take it away, and she’ll WILT. No, she doesn’t have the capacity to be happy,” Hazel states dismissively.

GM: Harvey looks down the road and the fast-approaching adjacent houses of his daughter and Mrs. Worwood. “This is where I need your mother,” he mumbles to himself.

Hazel: “‘Therefore the skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field,’” Hazel quotes.

“She wants to lean on those mayoral connections? Good luck. What’s she going to do, complain that I’m being too nice? ‘Therefore the clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him.’”

GM: Harvey looks at his daughter with more than an apprehensive eye. “Handles in all the wrong places.”

Hazel: That momentarily breaks Hazel’s stride. “Sorry?”

GM: “Uh, nothing, just something… oh, heh, speaking of your mom, I wanted to… ask you something.”

Hazel: “Uh, that was Sun Tzu, Daddy. You might actually like his book. It’s very short and applicable to police work.” She pauses at his next remark. “Well, I’m… having dinner with her tonight. What’s that?”

GM: He frowns momentarily, then says as he pulls into her driveway, “So, I told her about Lance, and I take it you told her that you stayed over.”

Hazel: “Yes. I don’t like playing games keeping secrets between the two of you,” Hazel states frankly.

GM: “No, right, I mean, because there’s nothing wrong with you coming over.”

Hazel: “And because I’m not keeping hers, yes, she wasn’t happy.”

GM: “Oh, that’s not a secret,” he says, looking at the windshield. “She called me.”

Hazel: Wait. Is he saying I can’t stay over anymore, because he wants to get in good with Mom? Hazel frowns. That could prove troublesome, if it takes her too much longer to vanquish her nocturnal visitor. Then again, she could just rent a hotel room. She has the money, even if she’s loath to spend it. But periodically alternating locations would be even better. That gives her… tomorrow and one more day to make all her preparations before she has to face this thing, before she’s staying at the same place more than once. Oh well. Her visitor surely won’t be completely passive either, simply leaving her alone if she doesn’t sleep at the Sweeney house. Or at least, that’s an assumption it’s safer to work off from.

GM: “So… I was wondering, did you tell your mom about the car crash and…”

Hazel: “Oh. You mean…” Hazel shakes her head.

GM: “Yeah.” He sighs with evident relief.

Hazel: “That’s… a secret from everyone, Daddy. Not simply her.”

GM: He chew on his lip and nods. “Uncle Leo quotes this saint, I think Francis or Augustine, who said that we should never use the truth to hurt people, or something like that.”

Hazel: “Augustine of Hippo had a… related one. ‘The truth is like a lion; you don’t have to defend it. Let it loose; it will defend itself.’ That said, some lions are best left caged. They are naturally inclined to maul people.”

GM: “Yes,” he quickly agrees. “Thanks,” he says, finally turning to face his daughter. “So do you want me to help get the mower started?”

Hazel: Hazel is thankful for the change of topic. There’s a lion she’s keeping caged from him, after all, and every yowl from its cage breaks her heart. She’s always been able to trust him, rely on him for anything…

“That sounds great, Daddy,” she smiles.

GM: “It’s what I’m here for,” he says with his own heart-deep grin.

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

Hazel: “How were you a bonehead? You haven’t done anything wrong,” Hazel half-questions, half-assesses in a frank tone.

Besides answering when he knocks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel: I should have told Dad that quote.

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

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

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

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

She did, after all, have a cause worth fighting for.

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

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

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

GM: “Old,” she replies truculently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lamia retreats.

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

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

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

She has no intention of letting it be the last.


Parasomniac Calder_R

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