Witiko Falls: Disillusion

Phase I, Case File 1.07


Brook: Skin Deep


10.07.1998, Wednesday afternoon

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

BROOKS!!!!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Danny,” June interrupts.

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

The music-crazed girl stops interrupting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your hair is really nice,” June says.

Daniel scowls even more and mutters something that neither of the others hear.

“What?” June turns and asks.

“Oh nothing,” he replies unconvincingly.

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

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

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

Brook: Brook grins a bit and reaches over June’s head to ruffle his hawk. “Yeah, it’s… she really is nice! I don’t like the thought of her being bullied. But I need a girl who’s… I dunno, stronger? I feel like Leanne would get lonely with me working.”

They have to be getting close by now. He turns down another street, sure he can see the sign peek over a building. “Still have to work with her for that project, though. Danny wouldn’t switch with me. He got some… sci-fi fiction race.”

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

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

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

GM: Interrupting such heavy thoughts, O’Tolley’s kelly-green circle comes into view, its driveway slammed with post-school traffic.

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

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

Brook: Brook never minds paying for the meals. In a small town like this, not a lot of people their age have many options for part-time jobs.

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

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

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

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

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

Brook: Brook nods at the idea of not winging it as he sits down with his friends. He does have plans! But hearing nothing from Daniel’s full-mouthed jabbering makes him curious. “Jesus, June. I’ve known Rufio since he was a little lost boy, and I can’t understand him with his mouth full,” he says, laughing. “Come on, though. What was your idea? There are no lines you can’t at least consider crossing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel puts a comforting arm around his girlfriend.

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

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

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

“Yeah, ok,” the freshman answers tentatively.

Brook: Brook smiles a little to his friends upon seeing that they agree with the idea, however prohibitively on June’s part. Maybe he’ll have to talk to her about her mother as well.

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

Nelson.jpg

Brook: Before Brook can open his mouth again, they’re being accosted by the group of brutes. He sighs, shakes his head, and ignores them for the most part. It’s best to make them feel unimportant.

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

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

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

Brook: Brook knows his friend is going to stand up, but he’s trying to show him that there’s a better way. June’s reaction however makes him worried. It’s pretty obvious she’s using it to get some space from the table, and that the two of them should let her–much as he wants to go and clear things up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But as the saying goes, speak of the devil, and he shall appear. Nelson and the other football players brush past the two friends. As one jock swipes Daniel’s mohawk, Nelson calls out, “Aw, did June leave Rufio and Peter Pansy to play fudgepackers by themselves?”

The other meatheads snicker. Daniel stands, but he struggles to find any sensical comeback. The jocks just laugh and walk out the door to their truck.

Brook: Brook already had an inkling how this was going to pan out when it started, and squints his eyes shut in exasperation when the jocks walk by at the worst possible moment. Despite his words, he gets a little rigid when they touch his friend’s hair. He shoots the jocks glances and stands up with Danny to watch them leave.

GM: Nelson, however, takes a quick detour and leans against the payphone, sneering as he says something to June.

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

Brook: No. No no no no NO. They did the worst possible thing to do at that moment in talking to June. Things are spiraling out of control. Brook follows Danny out the door, even if nothing he says can make the other boy stop now. But his hand is already in his pocket and pulling on his badge. Just in case. Once he’s out the door, he looks back at June with a sympathetic look of ‘sorry’ as he tails after Danny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

THAT IS ENOUGH.”

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

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

He lets that stew for a moment before the whispers because strained and threatening in tone, then leads Nelson away from the group if the jock lets him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What the hell did you say to him?”

Brook: Brook watches Nelson run for the fucking hills, then turns to the group and huffs into his hand, smelling his breath and sniffing it like it’s somehow his breath that did the damage. Danny’s question just makes his bigger friend just smile before he looks to the rest of the jocks.

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

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

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

June likewise stares. “What did you say?”

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

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

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

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

GM: “Me? Yeah, I’m fine.”

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

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

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

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

Brook: Things get a little awkward when the uncle shows up, but Brook is glad he seems worried about what’s happening. It’s a good sign of character.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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But to Brook and his mother, Red Aspen is home. Sure, they have a small house on the Res, but the firewatch station is where they truly live. That it might also be where they die is something not lost on either of them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brook: Brook winces a little again when she reaches in, but he doesn’t resist or pull away. He wishes she wanted to talk about it now, but he watches her back as she walks back to the station, hand on his weapon. Nothing happens, just the usual things. His mother knows how to be a parent.

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

Brook: Brook’s hand goes to it automatically, pulling the receiver to his face. “This is Mad Cub, sat at the station, go ahead Skinny.”

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

Chet.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this evening, that duty falls to him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mad Cub is 10-86. Heading to 10-45 off Bad Medicine. Skinny Chet, permission for junior ranger to engage 10-39? Sun’s dipping down.”

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

Hazel: Attila Awakens


10.07.1998, Wednesday afternoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eddie2.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel: Mine, or its?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eddie,

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

Hazel

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

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

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

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

Hazel: Hazel feels awkward as she steps inside the crowded, greasy diner after locking her bike outside. She doesn’t eat out very often–it’d be more expensive even if she didn’t steal her groceries—and on the occasions when she goes to restaurants with her parents, she always lets them talk to the wait staff. In fact, she’s not sure if she’s ever spoken to a waitress on her own.

The food here is… really heavy too. Hazel isn’t a vegetarian–she is above all a free-food-arian–but she does prefer lighter fare. Nor does she want to spoil her appetite when she’s having dinner with Mom. Still, she feels like she should order something to justify her presence, even loath as she is to part with money over the non-essential purchase. She somewhat stiffly asks one of the sisters for a cup of coffee, sits down in the third booth from the door, and covertly tapes a non-colored, clipped-out “Y” newspaper letter to the table’s underside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Leave. Now.”

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

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

Fighting 31
JFK 1983

Hazel: No. It can’t be the same man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GM: A lot of the patrons seem to look at each other and silently or not try to piece together Hazel’s last remark. Beyond her odd phraseology, it’s hard to hear her when Dusty tries to rise, screaming, and knocks over the salt-shaker and napkin dispenser. A few of the patrons, truckers mostly, stand up, but it is not clear whose aid they’re coming to.

The Yaeger twins, however, reassert control as Delma violently pours a lukewarm pitcher of coffee over Dusty’s face, and with her sister Gertrude, heaves him to his feet and hurls him out the pig-rump back door. Dusty barely has a chance to make his screams coherent enough to yell a few slurs at Hazel before the door slams shut on his still-burning, coffee-drenched face.

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

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

Hazel: “Yes, please.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

GM: The girl smiles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cliff.jpg

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

Michael.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel: Hazel’s nose wrinkles.

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

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

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

Hazel: Indoor voice, please?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delma rolls her eyes and walks off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GM: “Frieda Snyder,” Michael answers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can’t let him see Mom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That much is true, at least.

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

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

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

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

Lydia.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel: “He couldn’t take ‘leave now’ for a valid answer. Actions speak louder than words, and mace speaks quite loudly.” Hazel then answers somewhat more seriously, “He just started talking to me. I wasn’t interested in having a conversation, yet he persisted in his advances and maintained that I was playing ‘difficult to get’. I mean, ‘hard to get.’ It was considerably demeaning to have ‘no’ assumed to actually mean ‘yes.’ When he suggested that I find ‘discipline and danger in one package’ attractive, releasing something dangerous from a tangentially package-like container seemed an inversely attractive recourse.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel: Fuck.

FUCK.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kurt: Mind’s Eye


10.07.1998, Wednesday evening

GM: The operatives let the mentally and physically worn teen rest for a while. Then, his training begins. It starts with a camp-sized barbecue grill and two folding lawn chairs. Agent Ridley stands, still dressed in his suit but now wearing a frilly ‘Kiss the Cook’ apron. He’s flipping steaks on the grill, marinating and seasoning them. “The first lesson of being an operative is this: Feed the Beast.”

“I’m not yanking your tally-whacker, either. This is a life or death lesson. Feed the Beast.” He drizzles on more of the marinade and flips one of the bloody steaks, searing its other side. “Because if you don’t–the Beast will feed itself. And maybe it eats you, or a loved one, or some innocent bystander, but any way it screws the pooch, the pooch is screwed. So repeat after me: Rule number one is to feed the Beast.” Ridley flips the other steak and breathes in deeply. He looks over at his still-silent pupil.

Kurt: Kurt feels a lot fresher and better rested now; he looks at Ridley with a degree of amusement. Nonetheless, Kurt nods his head emphatically at Ridley’s life lesson. The smell of the steak is certainly mouth-watering, and feeling pretty hungry, Kurt can’t help agreeing with the man. “Rule number one is to feed the Beast, Ridley.”

GM: “That’a boy,” the black ops agent says with a grin, made all the more ludicrous by his apron.

Kurt: Kurt adds a little cheekily, “No worries.” He grins. “Out of curiosity, is that apron for Chippy?”

GM: The pair are literally out in a starry field in the middle of nowhere, the airstream barely visible in the distance, the faint gleam of the charcoal reflecting on the aluminum. Ridley cocks his shaved head again. “Ridley’s Rule Number 2, ace, don’t poke the Beast–unless you really have to. And by Beast, I mean Chippy.” He laughs hard. Flipping the stakes again, he adds, “Believe or not, Kurt, but this apron was Chippy’s. She chucked it, so I, uh, appropriated it for government use. Eminent domain, I think they call it. It pisses her off.”

Kurt: Kurt looks around a little nervously to make sure Chippy isn’t within earshot of the pair–despite being in the middle of nowhere.

GM: “Hence Rule No. 2.”

Kurt: “Why does she distrust me?” Kurt asks rather suddenly.

GM: “Don’t take it personal, ace. She distrusts anyone she hasn’t shot twice in the head. Remember, Chippy’s got PBS.”

Kurt: Kurt smiles nervously. “Yeah. I remember, of course.” He stares at the cooking steaks and licks his chops a little.

GM: “Good, good,” Ridley says, taking a swig straight from the marinade. “Now pass me the plates,” he adds.

Kurt: “It’s been a while since I ate anything that smelled this good,” Kurt remarks. He’s been living on staples for the last couple weeks–the quarterly heating bill made a temporary hole of the family’s grocery budget. He grabs the plates as indicated and passes them to Ridley.

GM: As Ridley starts slapping the massive steaks onto the plates, he says, “Yeah, well, I hope you like your steaks one step shy of moo-ing. If I cook them any longer, we might attract a bear or pack of wolves. And then I’d have to shoot ‘em, which is no good because we’re trying to maintain a low profile.”

Kurt: Kurt isn’t sure if Ridley’s joking.

GM: The steaks do smell absolutely amazing. The richness and redness of the meat. There’s a primal, masculine pleasure to it. Kurt has no doubt they smell good enough to attract wildlife–or good enough to kill for.

Kurt: “It’s okay. I like my steaks mooing.”

GM: “Hallelujah,” Ridley says with a smirk. He sits down and pops open a soda bottle for both of them, then grabs his fork and knife. “But that leads up to Ridley’s Rule No. 34. If you gotta kill somebody, don’t go for the gun unless you have to. They’re noisy as Jesus’ second coming.”

Kurt: The thought of violence and death causes a chill to pass. “Do you really think I’ll have to kill someone, Ridley?” he asks.

GM: Ridley makes another paper napkin bib, then slices off a hunk of meat. “Let’s get there when and if we get there. In the meantime, back to Ridley’s Rule No. 1: Feed the Beat.”

Kurt: Kurt smiles at that.

GM: Between mouthfuls of succulent steak, Ridley continues the lesson. “See, the knights running with buckets on their heads, they had this saying, ‘First the horse, then the man’. Which is horseshit some stableboy made them swallow. First feed your own belly, so your belly can feed you. Then you’ll have the strength to take care of others.” He rips into another steak piece. “Understand?”

Kurt: Kurt appreciates the statement with a surprising bit of understand. “I understand. It’s the reason I want a scholarship,” he explains, beginning to hanker into his meat. “I want to be able to look after my ma and sister.”

GM: “Right, right,” Ridley says between chewing down gulps of steak. “Now Ridley’s Rule No. 3 is similar but related: Sleep is for the weak. But the corollary to that rule is: Everyone is weak. So you need to sleep. It’s like ammo, refill it when you can, and as much as you can carry without slowing you down, and don’t go into battle without it. Unless you really have to–and then, don’t expect to go guns blazing.”

Kurt: Kurt nods his head again. “I think these rules are coming down to knowing my limitations and knowing that I am only human.” Considering his broken foot, he chews his steak a little more slowly. The car accident shocked him, but ultimately it taught him that his life is pretty damn fragile.

GM: Perhaps it is that newfound sense of life’s fragility, but Kurt finds the juicy steak to be beyond compare. As he slows down to savor each bite, he can feel the vitality pouring into him. Sweet, succulent, and primal. A fire that must be fed, yes, but one which has great power. He feels that fire lick his lips, spread down his gullet, and spread into his loins. Under the diamond cold sky, surrounded by pristine wilds that still regard man as a stranger, and sitting beside burning coals, the experience is transcendent. As if the experience transfixes and transcends time, connecting him to the atavistic pleasures of long-dead paleolithic ancestors.

Kurt: “Holy shit balls!” Kurt swears in surprise. “This steak is amazing!”

GM: “Holy shit balls,” Ridley chuckles in agreement as he licks his fingers.

Kurt: Kurt chuckles along with Ridley as he continues eating. “Do you think my ma and sister are okay?” he asks, bringing the topic back to the family he left behind. “It got really, really strange back there; do you know what happened, Ridley?”

GM: Ridley chews for a good-long time. “Don’t know, ace. That’s something you’ll have to ask the Wizard. I’m not the smartest apple in the cart.”

Kurt: Kurt smiles. “Same. That’s why I am hoping to get a sports scholarship,” he admits. “But maybe I can get one with my photography. I am not sure if they give scholarships for photography, though.” He adds, “Might have to look into it considering my broken leg.”

GM: “Hmm, so you know your way around cameras…” Ridley’s thoughts turn inwards.

Kurt: “Yeah,” Kurt nods, eating. Cheerful. Complacent.

GM: “You do audio too?”

Kurt: “Yes. I am vice president of my school’s AV Club.”

GM: Ridley grins. “Vice president? Well why the hell didn’t you say so before?” He chuckles. “You might make a helluva eye as well as rabbit.”

Kurt: Kurt laughs. “Do you think so?”

GM: “But that takes us to Ridley’s Rule No. 46, a bug is only as good as you place it, and a camera is only as good as you point it.” Ridley wipes his face and even licks off a spot of sauce from the napkin before chucking it in the coals. He takes off his apron, slinging it over the lawn-chair, and dumps the cooler’s melted ice into the grill, extinguishing the fire in a gasp of smoke and steam.

Kurt: “I am mostly good at the creative side of it all,” Kurt admits. “And am pretty ‘meh’ at the technicalities.”

GM: Ridley flicks out a pair of shades. “Well, an eye for beauty is an eye for detail. Or at least that’s what your fortune cookie said from the commie-chow restaurant. Although Mr. Thin once told me they’re actually Japanese cookies.” In the now much darker night, Ridley takes out a gun with a flashlight attachment. “You ever play flashlight tag?”

Kurt: Kurt looks at the gun with an unsure expression, then gulps. “I have,” he admits. “But I haven’t played it with a gun.”

GM: Ridley nods–or at least looks like he nods in the dark. Kurt hears the man eject the gun’s clip and the cartridge inside the side-arm. He then passes the neutered weapon into Kurt’s hands. “Wouldn’t want you to accidentally pull the trigger and blow off these… holy shit balls–of mine or yours. Also, Rule No. 34.”

Kurt: Kurt awkwardly takes the piece; it feels heavy in his hands. “No. I haven’t really used a gun at all,” he says. “So if I suck at this, that’s why. Hopefully I don’t actually have to ever shoot someone, though.”

GM: “Right now, ace, we’re working on Rule No. 46.” He clicks on the flashlight.

Kurt: Kurt nods in the darkness, unsure if he can actually be seen. He points the gun away from Ridley, feeling a little nervous. “I understand.”

GM: “All right, time to hobble on over to the trees,” Ridley says, offering his hand. A short time later, the pair are deep into the woods. Nature presses in heavily from all sides, and the moon-veiled darkness seems thick and alive.

Kurt: Kurt feels very alive. He also feels very, very nervous.

GM: Ridley passes Kurt a pair of night-black shades.

Kurt: Kurt accepts them tentatively.

GM: “So the Injuns had this game, right. Where the young braves would go out into the woods and try to sneak up and touch the others. Three touches, and the brave could steal your soul.” In the flashlight’s beam, Ridley’s teeth shine like a Cheshire moon. “You mission, ace, is to catch me with that light before I steal your soul.”

Kurt: Seems simple enough. Kurt nods his head. “What about the shades?” he asks.

GM: “Fashion accessories.” He grins again. “Sometimes the Injuns had their brave that was ‘it’ close his eyes. And you’re ‘it’,” Ridley says as he walks out into the tree-striped darkness.

Kurt: Kurt tags along, putting on his shades when he finds a good spot. He readies his flashlight. “I am guessing this is how I do it,” he says, preparing to find Ridley in the darkness. The shades, of course, feel awkward being placed over his own glasses.

GM: As the shades further steal Kurt’s sight, he’s forced to rely upon his other senses, primarily his hearing and proprioception. Long hours on mixing boards and in gyms have helped hone both, but this is different. Amongst the vague shadows, the initially silent forest slowly grows in volume. Trees sway in the night breeze, their boughs swishing and brushing against each other as their trunks creak. Distantly an owl hoots and other less identifiable sounds fill the wood, punctuating it in a rhythmless nocturne.

And somewhere in that dark symphony are Ridley’s footsteps. Once or twice, he thinks he hears the telltale scrunch of pine needles. Once or twice, he pinions the flashlight and catches a tall shadow. But not the man. The man catches him. Kurt hears the crack of twig right behind him, but he can’t turn around fast enough. Ridley taps him on the shoulder. “That’s one, ace.”

Despite his student’s loss, Ridley’s flashlight-lit smile seems genuine enough when he adds, “But you almost had me. Maybe I’m getting slow in my old age.” He clicks the flashlight off and walks off again into the darkness. “Give me a 100 count.”

Kurt: Kurt does so and counts down from 100 until he reaches one.

GM: This round, however, goes quite differently. Maybe Ridley is getting old–or maybe his training is working.

Kurt: Kurt’s nostrils flare in anxiety as he counts down; that fresh pine smell is a little distracting. Nonetheless, he tries to push the thought from his mind and focus on the task at hand. His ears perk up. Bristling grass. A snapping twig. He swivels the torch around the dense, dark tree-wilds. He searches.

Maybe it was something else.

He sees nothing there. Only darkness. He looks some more. That owl’s hoots sound in the distance.

It’s only a distraction. Focus on the grass and sound of twigs.

Kurt tries to remind himself over and over, tries to push unimportant noises away from his notice. He tries to zero in on the important noises that could only be man-made.

Footsteps… are they footsteps?

It’s difficult to know. It’s not all the time Kurt had to try and differentiate between the sound of footsteps and the sound of the wind. Nonetheless, he points his torch to wherever he hears footsteps. He points his torch to wherever he hears a man-made breath. A snapping twig. Moving leaves.

Maybe finding someone isn’t about finding someone the first time; it’s about finding them before they find you.

Then, the light of his torch finally catches him…

GM: Ridley laughs as the light hits him in the chest. “Well done, ace. How’d you do it?”

Kurt: “Luck.” Kurt laughs but is telling the truth.

GM: Ridley doesn’t. “In my experience, when men speak of luck, they usually refer to forces too big for them to understand or control–even if those forces are inside them.”

Kurt: Kurt pauses, figuring humbleness wasn’t the best response. “I suppose it wasn’t purely luck,” he responds to the criticism. “But I didn’t pick where you were on the first try. It was a bit of guesswork, honestly. But educated guesswork, I guess.” He gives Ridley a goofy, lopsided smile at the unintended end-line.

GM: “Well, it’s bottom of the first inning and we’re tied up. Let see how you do with some more ‘guessing’ and ‘education’. Fifty count should suffice,” he adds as he slinks away with a subtlety surprising for a man of his size.

Kurt: Kurt counts down once again, peering around and listening as the night grows darker still.

GM: In the stillness, all is quiet. Then the wind blows hard, scattering pine leaves and rustling branches. The sudden pervasive sound makes Kurt’s heart hammer as if the entire woods are coming after him. The flashlight catches nothing but the trees and the glinting eyes of an owl that swiftly flies away. The nearby trees and bushes sway like dark dancers against a black backdrop. That is, until one of the swaying bushes reaches out with a forefinger and presses Kurt’s chest.

“2-1, ace,” Ridley says.

And then as if to dispel the notion that he just got ‘lucky’, Ridley passes on several tricks. “When everything moves, look for what ain’t. When you’re out in the elephant grass, and everything but this one shadow moves with the wind, you might have a case of a pajama-clad sniper. Most fellas hiding think the trick is to stay still as possible. That’s not always the case.”

Kurt: Kurt nods his head in understanding.

GM: “Here’s another trick if you’re going stealth-mode: breathe through your mouth, not your nose. Yep, you open up wide and breathe real slow. Keeps you from hyperventilating and disturbs the air less. Had this Jap once tell me the ninjas referred to it as the ‘rice paper walk of the wind’.” He stands up from his crouched position, brushing off some leaves as he does. “Twenty-five count this time, ace.” He then sprints out into the darkness.

Kurt: Kurt is amazed at Ridley’s subterfuge and stealth. It’s not entirely unsurprising after hearing the man talk a little about his past, in particular his experience in Vietnam, but Kurt can’t help feeling a sense of awe and prickling nervousness. He gives Ridley an affirmative answer and begins to count. He keeps his thoughts to himself this time; attempting only to absorb what the apparent ‘special ops’ had to give him in advice and wisdom. What if that thing comes back to try and kill me or my family? It’s a real concern. Why would it only happen once? How can I defend myself next time, he asks himself, and more importantly, how can I defend my family from that creature, too?

He finishes counting. And searches. He wants to succeed. I need to succeed and get better. I need to be stronger.

GM: Kurt’s need bears fruit. Twice, he almost tags the agent, only to illuminate the man’s shadow as he flits between trees. But the third time, he catches Ridley right in the eyes as the man is about to tag his arm. “Aw dang, that’s bright!” he says, blinking and clicking off the light. He chuckles as he gives Kurt a congratulatory thumbs up. “Bases loaded, bottom of the ninth, tied score, ace. But here’s another tip. In the dark or dim lighting, you gotta rely on your peripheral vision. It’s shit for color and detail, but its best for seeing in the dark and detecting motion.” He then runs off into the woods. “Ten count!”

After Kurt calls it off, it takes him less then 10 more second to catch Ridley, this time still far away, mid-skulk. The agent nods his head. “And that’s the end of tonight’s game. Looks like somebody keeps their soul. But we’ll see about tomorrow,” he adds, grinning. “But for tonight,” he says, taking back his glasses and gun, “we have to follow Rule No. 3: Sleep is for the weak.” He helps Kurt up, slinging the lawn chair over his shoulder. “And what’s its corollary?”

Kurt: “We’re all weak!” Kurt barks, holding back a put-on yawn.

GM: “That’s right, ace. So the trick is making sure your enemies are weaker. That’s why we train.”

Kurt: Didn’t my double accuse me of being weak? Kurt simply smiles softly at Ridley’s words, nodding his head once.

GM: Ridley’s eyes crinkle with mirth, but the Texan holds his tongue. Together, they return to the airstream, where Ridley sets Kurt up in a cot-sized mattress inside. The covers brightly feature the bars and stars. “All right, ace, you’re taking my bed for the night. Doctor’s orders. I can manage with a creak in my neck and back, but you need that leg to rest up pronto. If Chippy starts snoring loudly, remember Rule No. 2.”

Kurt: Kurt pauses, a little taken aback by the nice gesture all of a sudden. “Ridley,” he says, turning toward Ridley to look him in the eye. “I just want to say ‘thank you’ for looking out for me and saving me. I appreciate it.”

GM: Ridley’s crow’s feet crinkle, but he remains silent, as he leaves the teen’s curtain-sectioned area. A few seconds later, the airstream door opens and closes. The RV’s aluminum shuts out most of the night’s sounds. But as Kurt finds sleep overtaking him, he hears the eerie sound of a distant elk bull.

Kurt: Kurt frowns at the noise, reminding him the elk from earlier (the one with the body flayed on its antlers); nonetheless, he tries to ignore it and go to sleep…

GM: The air-rending elk cries continue. Then die. Blackness envelopes him.

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