Witiko Falls: Disillusion

Phase I, Case File 1.08

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Brook: Skin Deep


10.07.1998, Wednesday evening

GM: Bad Medicine itself is very steep, forcing Brook to gear his truck’s manual transmission into progressively lower gears to make the grade. The road is one lane in each direction, with narrow shoulders, and no passing lanes. From one side to the other, Bad Medicine takes about an hour and a half to travel, most of the time at speeds limited by the road conditions to between 25 and 45 miles per hour. Several short and relatively straight stretches–which unfortunately usually end in a sharp curve at a poor angle–make the going treacherous.

Not only is the once logging road steep and prone to fog, rain, and winter black ice, but the road is poorly designed. Many of the numerous curves are set at a grade that encourages cars who enter them at too high a speed to leave the road rather than cling to it, and visibility is nonexistent in many areas. To make matters worse, the thick undergrowth and sharp drop-offs ensure that once a vehicle has left the road, it is almost impossible to see or reach. This evening, the beshadowed vistas are further obscured by snake-fog. Thankfully, traffic is light to nonexistent, with only the occasional vehicle passing by from the other direction.

Brook: Brook knows how bad this stretch of road is. He keeps the lights on the truck sending blues and reds out even after turning off the siren, sending out a signal in the snake-fog. Uktena. The Sioux say the thunderbirds killed them, all but the snakes you see today. But their ghosts are very much alive in Witiko Falls, the snake-fog a constant reminder. He gets there soon thanks to permission to use the sirens, but he slows to a crawl through the fog. Right up to the mile marker.

GM: As Brook approaches mile marker 16, he doesn’t see the roadkill as much as feel it. The truck repeatedly bumps and jolts as he runs over what he assumes are fog-shrouded rabbit, squirrel, or possum carcasses. Crows burst into flight and caw at their supper’s intrusion. Eventually though, just after the mile marker, Brook makes out a darker shape on the road: a timber-wolf. Buzzards and crows feast on the remains boldly, barely hoping back out of the way of the truck before returning to their meal.

Brook: It’s like a massacre, smaller animals crunching under the car’s wheels until he gets to the larger carcass, parking in front of it and quickly using his radio to call it in as he grabs enough flares. “Mad Cub to Skinny Chet. I’m on scene. It’s, ah… it’s weird. Many smaller 10-45s en route to reported large one. Timber wolf. Halting traffic and approaching to ensure status.”

Hopping out, he’s quick to pop flares. One behind the truck, one beside it in the oncoming lane, and one in front of it, a few feet from the wolf. After he’s set up, he approaches the body. Just in case, he has out his sidearm, a burning flare in his off hand to ward off the birds. “Okay buddy, listen here if you’re alive. Either you get up and get into the woods, or I’ll end you. Okay? I wanna go home just like you do.”

It’s probably dead as a doornail, but he’s a cautious man. Little off, to be talking to the dead as well. Throwing the flare at the carcass, he quickly points his gun back up at it as he waits for a response. Sure it’d react to its fur being singed.

GM: There’s a short pause before the radio crackles. “10-4, Mad Cub. What you’re describing sounds pretty par for the course. Not saying it’s normal, just normal for Bad Medicine. Set those flares, and get done and out as quick as you can, Mad Cub. Radio as soon as you’re moving. Remember, stay behind the line.” A slight pause, then, “Also, watch out for Sta-au. Out.”

Brook: Brook rolls his eyes hearing the response from the man. He’s like a TV family show actor purposely being uncool in an episode where he tries to connect with his kids. “Roger, white bread. Wish me luck. Madcub out.” Whatever.

GM: Meanwhile, the wolf does not respond. It is clearly dead, and its death was not pleasant. Already picked over by the now-circling carrion birds, the wolf carcass still has enough brutal clues for Brook to conclude that the wolf must have been traveling across the road when it was struck by a car, dragged momentarily, and then run over. The latter trauma caused the beast’s mid-section to burst open, allowing the buzzards and crows to gorge freely on the viscera. The stench and gore are overpowering–or would be for most individuals. But not the son of Mary Madcatcher.

Brook: As Brook comes up to the body and takes a better look at the very dead body, he puts the weapon away and pulls the knife out its sheath. It’s a fucking gore fest, but he swallows his fear and disgust, hoping to make his mother a bit proud.

GM: Instead, Brook stifles down the rising bile in his throat and picks out two other odd elements. First, he notes the wolf had been recently shot by a rifle, a long graze across its left shoulder that hadn’t had time to heal or fester prior to its vehicular death. Second, there’s the ring. He notices it as the flare’s light glints off the ring’s large diamond. The jewelry is covered in picked-over gore, in likely what remains of the beast’s ruptured stomach. It has a gold band, with at least a two-carat diamond. A half-dissolved, half-carrion-picked finger chunk rests inside the ring.

Brook: That’s when he sees it. Using the blade of the knife, Brook pokes it towards himself to get a better look. Human meat, a finger on a ring. Fucking… ugh. But he keeps as much cool as he can, picking the entire thing up by the ring and rushing back with it to the truck. There’s bags in the road kit, he puts the finger in one and slips on a pair of gloves to get to work. He’ll have quite something to show Ma when he gets home. For now he grabs the shovel and huts to it, tossing smaller animals that are in okay condition into the back of the truck, and tossing everything else far over the side.

Poor possums, an entire family. Then if his guess is right, the wolf came smelling the blood. Wounded and without its pack, it went after an easy meal and… thump. But he doesn’t dwell, working quick as he can, thankful for the gloves. Especially when it comes time for the wolf. One hand on the back of the neck, one on the base of the tail. Using the spine, he doesn’t so much pick the body up as immediately toss it over the guard rail as far as he can. Football players have dead lifts. Brook has dead wolf lifts. But at least they don’t have to check and see what kind of mess the shovel will be needed for afterwards.

GM: Football players also don’t have to worry about their weights leaking blood, maggot eggs, and gory pelt scraps all over their legs and hands.

Brook: Chitlins, either. But it’s part of the service. Brook mutters a “sorry, boy,” and looks over the road, now almost clear but for the leftovers. He grabs his shovel to go and finish things up.

GM: By the time the now-bloodied junior ranger is about to, the sun is all but set. An old, teal minivan pulls up behind him, half-slamming its brakes when its driver spots the flares and siren-lights. After the driver carefully backs up and away from the torturous edge, the passenger door opens, and a bean-pole, bespectacled man in sweater and jeans. The former almost perfectly matches the van in hue.

“Um, hello there!” he says, shielding his eyes from the flashing emergency lights. “Is this the way to Valhalla?”

Brook: Brook is glad the civilian was able to see everything and stop before disaster struck. He carefully pulls off the disgusting gloves as he approaches the man, turns them inside out and tosses them in the pile of pelt in the truck bed.

“Hopefully not the Valhalla I know, sir!” he says, keeping a few feet of distance. “I’m just cleaning up some roadkill, sir, if you just get back into your vehicle I can guide you past it with a flare.”

GM: The man unfolds a map he’s carrying. “Valhalla Provincial Park, right off of route 6. We’re visiting my cousin in Slocan for th–” He gags as he sees and spots the gore covering Brook. “Dear sweet Jiminy Cricket!” He holds the map up to his face. “That’s… that’s not a person, is it? I mean, from one.” He cranes his neck to see the smeared road, and gags again.

Brook: Brook sighs in a bit of relief, for a moment the man sounded like a ghost. Once he spots the viscera, he looks like one. “See this fog, sir? It’s called snake fog. Animals come through here like they always have and get hit. No human casualties this time.”

GM: A heavyset woman pokes her head out of the minivan. She honks. “Is it the right road or not, Harold?!”

Brook: Hearing that woman honk spooks the young ranger. He pulls out another flare, strikes it open and approaches the man, laying a clean hand on his shoulder. “Back in the van, sir. I can give you directions through the window. You’re safer in your vehicle.”

Then he comes up to the woman, making sure to get a good look at her as he holds the flare up above the van to signal oncoming cars. “Ma’am, I’ll have to ask you refrain from loud noises up here. This is a dangerous pass you’ve chosen, better to go slow and respectful. Now, what you want to do is…” Brook recites the directions clearly, making hand motions to accent it. Stressing all the caution he can moving through the mist here.

GM: ‘Harold’ is all too eager to be back in the safe, non-gore-smeared van. As Brook approaches the driver’s side of the minivan, he spots a gaggle of children in its two rows, half-buried by blankets, toys, and travel gear. One of the children, a girl Brook thinks, calls up to the front, “Mom, did you get a ticket again?”

The woman fixes the child with a chilling glare, then turns back to the young ranger as he explains the directions. “Did you get all that, Harold?” she asks.

The man starts following the map with his finger. “Yep,” he replies. “I see the route.”

“That’s what you said the last time,” the woman says icily.

“Well, I just wasn’t sure with this road, dear,” the clearly hen-pecked man replies differentially.

Brook: Brook steps in between the two a little bit, looking over his shoulder into the fog for a moment as he speaks. “You two might wanna refrain from your… relationship dynamic until you get clear of here as well,” he says, shooting the woman a look.

“You’re passing through cursed land. Twelve people a year die on this pass. Bodies never found. They say a ghost comes out of the fog in front of your car. If it’s the ghost I think it is, marriage issues might draw it to you. So either shush up, or turn around and take another route. For your kids. Pick quick, too. I have carcass to shovel up.”

GM: The two adults grow silent. Even the rambunctious children in the back settle down upon hearing about the ‘cursed land’ and its murderous ghost. Harold rolls up his window. His wife starts to thank and even apologize to the junior park ranger.

Brook: Brook smiles a little bit when they get the hint. Even he doesn’t know if it’s true or not, but a cautious driver is more than most can hope for.

GM: One of the smallest children then says, “Mommy, I think I saw the ghost. It was big and dark and had two shiny eyes.” The child points to a stretch of trees just ahead and to the right of the carcass remains. Her mother shushes her child, while her father says, “Okay now Sally, ghosts aren’t real. It was probably just a deer–their eyes reflect when light is shined on them. Okay?” He then looks up at Brook for some kind of reassurance or support.

Brook: Bristles work up Brook’s back, and a small frown forms on his face as he looks back to where the kid points. He tries not to make a show of drawing his revolver, keeping it at his side.

“Sally, right? You have good eyes, kiddo. Keep them sharp, okay? And don’t be afraid. Be nice to the land, and the land can be nice back. Respect is huge.” It isn’t a confirmation or denial, but he looks to the parents.

“And you two. Rule one of roadkill. No matter what jumps into the road, keep going STRAIGHT. Don’t turn that wheel, brace it. This mess isn’t uncommon, and it attracts more mess. Now let’s get you both through here, okay? Follow my flare and turn back into your lane when I stop following beside you, okay?”

GM: The family and its teal minivan follow the junior park ranger’s instructions. They eventually disappear into the fog–hopefully to safety.

Brook: Brook feels sorry for them, but knows he warned them. And armed them as best he could. Hopefully they won’t come back. The moment they get out of sight, the young man holsters the revolver and unslings his rifle, nose scrunching in a snarl as he chambers a round and goes to take a quick look. “Okay, more talking to myself… fuck… calm down, check it out, get the last of this poor guy out the road and go home to Ma. Whatever it is, it’s probably just hungry…”

GM: As Brook pushes himself to inspect the deep fog-shrouded pines where the child pointed, he senses something move in his peripheral vision. Neck and rifle barrel snapping around, he sees darkness staring back at him. It’s only for a moment, and maybe nothing more than the trick of the eye with the blur of the siren lights and bright flares, but Brook could swear he sees two eye-like spots staring back at him, shining with an oily glow in the midst of a lean black shape–a shape that seems to pour down the ravine and out of sight.

Brook: Snapping to the side, what the boy sees nearly makes him pull the trigger immediately, locking unblinking eyes with the creature until it slowly… slinks isn’t the right word. Everything goes rigid for a moment as he just stands there. Was that… was it a fucking hide-behind? Brook quickly shifts the safety back onto his rifle and strides back to the truck, grabs the shovel and gets back to work. Just a little more. Just the guts left.

As if trying to ward the creature away, he tosses the guts over the side at where he’d seen it, doing his job and–fuck forbid anything stop him–collects the flares and pulls a careful U turn back the way he came, heart pounding a mile a minute.

GM: On Brook’s last shovel-full of road-kill slop, he flings the shovel’s content wide and over the edge. His eyes can’t help but look down, can’t help but search for the oily glow of eyes staring up at him. He does not see them, though. But he also doesn’t see the wolf carcass either. It’s gone. Sweat trickles down his neck–and not just from exertion.

Brook: Brook shudders. That’s enough for today. Finally he’s in his truck, windows rolled up, lights going, radio off. He waits until he’s out of the fog and out of the pass to turn his lights back off. This… needs some time to stew. Once he’s in town, he stops at the Swiner, just parked there as he picks up his radio receiver. “Mad Cub to Skinny Chet. Is Mama Bear there at the station?”

GM: The radio crackles. “Chet speaking, Mad Cub. Mama Bear is out on the range. What’s your 20?”

Brook: Brook deflates a little, feeling like a scared little kid lost in a park for a moment before he takes a breath. You’re the Fence of the Falls, Brook. Steel. Breathe. “Parked in the lot of the Swiner. Job’s done, but there’s been complications. Advice on the address of Undersheriff Bauman?”

GM: “Mad Cub, you were to report as soon as you got done. Geez, kid. Your mom’s been having a heart attack. Or well, I’ve been having a heart attack for her. Why are you at the Swiner? And what’s the undersheriff got to do with it? Over.”

Brook: “Yeah, sorry Chet. I, uh… some stuff happened, I had to white knuckle it out of the pass and breathe a second. Half-ingested human remains were among the roadkill, the evidence needs to be turned in ASAP, and I wanted to have a talk with the undersheriff anyway. I’ll explain the rest once I get back. Advice on address, over.”

GM: There’s a delay in Chet’s response. “Mad Cub, I’m hankering to give you a 10-19, but I’m going to 10-5 to Mama Bear and the Den. Standby.”

Brook: Brook sighs nods to himself, getting out a sketchpad from the glovebox as he waits. That thing was dark. Maybe too dark to identify. But he needs to get down exactly what he saw as soon as possible. Words can only do so much, he sketches out the scene, starting from the Creature. With as much detail as he can recall. He can show it to his mother later.

GM: Brook’s artistry does not just depict the _thing_–it captures it. It’s almost as if his subconscious mind takes over, recalling things and details that his conscious psyche would not let him perceive. But now, the thing stares back at him, and he stares back at it. Clearly now. Its grotesque umbral shape echoes something of a coyote, but its size is closer to a grizzly, and yet there is still something vaguely feminine to its shape, something that turns Brook’s loins to water. It has large jaws and too, too many claws. The latter look most suited to digging, but they’re still likely capable of disemboweling a full-grown man. It’s black. Beyond black. It’s covered by a shroud, a pelt of matte darkness. And then there’s the eyes. Brook has to spit on the paper to get them to properly gleam with the right and oh-so wrong oily night-shine. Those eyes stare back at him. Watching. Waiting.

The radio eventually saves Brook from sinking into those oily abysses. Chet gives him the undersheriff’s current location. “149 Lynchwood Street. Sounds like Mrs. Gunderson got another dog. Looks like we’ve got a 10-11. Hope you’re up on your rabies shot. Over.”

Brook: Brook looks it over again and again before staring into the thing’s eyes. Its body looks feminine, but the eyes… they’re strange. It hasn’t really sunk in yet that he was mere feet from this monster. He had no idea what it was. No local little rumor fills the blanks in his head.

The radio coming up jolts him just a little, and he carefully blows it out to keep the sketch right, putting it back away and picking up the receiver. “10-4. On route. See you both soon. Mad Cub out.” Brook puts it into gear and drives out towards Gunderson’s. Half backup, half bearer of bad news.

Hazel: Attila Awakens


10.07.1998, Wednesday evening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GM: “Hmmm.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel: “I believe I have several pairs you got me in my early teens. That I have not worn since my early teens.” She frowns. “No, there was one exception you may recall me making for my first date, but that exception has yet to repeat itself. Ethological and sociological aspects aside, the negative health effects of such footwear is well-documented.”

GM: Lydia laughs lightly at some unshared joke.

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

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

Hazel: “Yes, I set myself up for that,” Hazel wryly admits several moments later.

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

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

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

Well, there’s little enough to be done about it right now. What’s been heard has been heard, and what’s seen has been seen. She’ll think up a way later to dissuade Mom’s interest in Michael. And she’ll certainly be investigating him. Even if he doesn’t call her, she has his name and face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GM: “Time will tell, dear.”

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

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

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

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

Hazel: “And who might that have been?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hate secrets, Mom, Hazel thinks sadly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel: “I see. That clarifies that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel: Mom’s leaving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel: Hazel finishes what’s left of her meal before it gets too cold. She’s always disliked needless waste. Besides, it’s not as if she has anything else to do while she waits.

Even that occupying task, though, doesn’t outlast the closed door. What is she doing in there? Hazel silently grumbles, then thinks through alternative means of killing time. She could change into her pajamas. But if her mom leaves the bathroom, she might walk in on Hazel naked. Plus that wouldn’t take very long anyway, and is she even going to still spend the night here?

Well… I hope so, Hazel grudgingly admits. Maybe I could stay with Dad again, but… ugh. She would need to re-sell her technically true earlier narrative of being too freaked out to stay overnight in the Sweeney house. But it’s a little odd she’d wait until this late before deciding that. Well, maybe not, she did mention she was having dinner with Mom.

But that does beg the question why she wouldn’t just ask to spend the night at her mother’s. Her dad knows she’s done it before, even if she doesn’t like the Ghost Elk Lodge as much as the GI House. Maybe her dad won’t think to ask, but if there’s even a chance… ugh. Hazel does not want to talk about this fight with him. Beyond the inherent reasons not to, that has another chance of stumbling onto her mom… moving. And she did give her word not to disclose that.

She tries not to think any more about it.

Okay, how would she even get in contact with her dad anyways? Call him from her mom’s suite, where Lydia could leave the bathroom at any moment, and would still hear the call anyway? That’s an inter-parental conflict bomb she doesn’t want to set off.

She could walk down to the lobby and ask the hotel staff if she could use a phone… ugh. That’s not as bad, but it’s still bad. Actually, no, the reception at the Elk Lodge is pretty good. It does have broadband Internet. She could probably get in touch with Dad over her cell.

Oh. But she’d have to ask him to drive over. So that would all-but guarantee the topic of the fight coming up (“Sport, why do you want me to pick you up from your mom’s? What happened?”). He’d also meet her at the lobby, because where else, and if Mom left the bathroom by that time, only to find Hazel gone from the suite… good god, the thought of her parents actually seeing each other under those circumstances is even worse than the phone call.

She could bicycle over. She supposes she could hunt around the suite for her mom’s car keys, wherever those are, and retrieve her bike from the SUV (does Mom have to keep changing her vehicles?). But… ugh. That’s a long bike ride, late at night, in too-cold weather, and she’s tired. Dad wouldn’t hear of it. She could bike over to his house without calling him, but what if he’s on-call and not home? And what if whatever’s bothering her at the Sweeney house… it didn’t disturb her at her dad’s yesterday, but… the thought of a long, lonely bike ride in the middle of the chill autumn night, with not a soul having any idea where she is, abruptly makes her feel very vulnerable. Probably just what her nocturnal visitor wants.

Hazel gives a frustrated snarl, but then it softens. She’s here, well-fed and snug in a warm, comfortable room, with Mom. And that’s… so much lesser an evil. She came over to be safe. She’d have come over anyways, for dinner, even if she didn’t mean to stay overnight. And… doesn’t like the thought of just walking out on her mom, after all what’s been said.

And that door still isn’t opening. Hazel heaves an internal sigh. She’d have preferred to say this to her mother’s face, but her patience has worn thin enough. She walks up to the bathroom and knocks softly against the door.

GM: “I’ll be out shortly, dear.”

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

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

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

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

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

Her motions are almost ginger as she accepts the hug.

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

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

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

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

Hazel: “Okay, that’s… that’s good. That gives time to adjust to things.” ‘We.’ It was there earlier. It’s there again. “Ah. Do you want to sit down?” she asks as she becomes conscious that she’s being held. It’s a noticeable sensation, with her mom still in the partly damp bathrobe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So don’t sneeze,” her mother teases.

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

You could sabotage it.

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

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

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

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

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

Mom can stay.

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

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

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

All you need to do is change your mind once…

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

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

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

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

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

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

She hasn’t squashed it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The serpent flicks its tongue.

I’ll be there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GM: “Probabilities?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

GM: Lydia nods.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel: Hazel nods. “Yes please.”

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

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

GM: “Sure thing, Hazel.”

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

GM: “I figured as much, dear.”

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

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

Hazel: Hazel frowns. She has a vague sense that someone without ASD would agree with her mom. “Well, if you clearly explained that it was a lie afterwards…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GM: “Likewise, dear. Sweet dreams.”

Kurt: Mind’s Eye


10.07.1998, Wednesday night

GM: Kurt is awoken by the touch of a gun barrel to his temple and the click of its safety turned off. The darkness is disorienting, but Kurt discerns the fast-breathing and feminine hiss. “What the hell is wrong with you?!”

Kurt: Kurt looks up with wide eyes into the blurry darkness; his glasses are placed off to the side. “What do you mean?” he asks in a confused, scared whisper.

GM: She pats him down vigorously, pressing the barrel firmly in his temple.

Kurt: Kurt whimpers at the violent, threatening gesture.

GM: Kurt remains in the lent sweatshirt, jeans, and shoes lent to him after he met the ‘Wizard’. “Who were you talking to?” Ridley’s partner demands.

Kurt: “What are you talking about, Chippy? I was sleeping!”

GM: Kurt’s use of her ‘nickname’ earns him a clenching fist to his balls. She squeezes. “You’re lying. You were talking.”

Kurt: Kurt makes a gurgling, painful squeak as his love-marbles are clenched within Chippy’s mighty grip. His eyes roll dangerously to the back of his head as he fights to remain conscious, already hurting enough as it is and still in recovery. Nonetheless, by some miracle Kurt remains awake–and breathing harshly–locks eyes with Chippy’s blurry figure as he speaks up. “I sleep-talk!” he says. “Stop hurting me, Chippy!”

GM: The painful grip on his crotch relaxes and withdraws. So does the gun against his temple.

Kurt: “Thank you!” he says, relief touching his tone–albeit mixed with a healthy degree of annoyance aimed at the crazy, bitchy woman. “I seriously don’t get why you hate me,” Kurt says, catching his breath but remaining on his back.

GM: “My name is not ‘Chippy’. You will address me as Agent Hickory or not at all. I prefer the latter.”

Kurt: “Hickory?” Kurt asks, incredulity entering his voice. “Do you mean like the nursery rhyme? Why does Ridley call you ‘Chippy’?”

GM: There’s a slight gnashing of teeth. “Because he thinks he’s funny. A sentiment reality does not share.”

Kurt: “I think he’s funny!” Kurt says, defending his new friend. “Maybe it’s you who isn’t in touch with reality!”

GM: A hand snakes onto his throat, threatening to crush his windpipe. The woman screams at Kurt. “I AM PERFECTLY IN TOUCH WITH REALITY!!!!”

Kurt: Kurt cringes at the rough contact, but his eyes don’t roll into the back of his head at the sensation of pain this time, and instead he looks up at the screaming woman with daggers in his eyes as he clenches his teeth. He looks up at her, indignantly. He remains silent, however.

GM: The rest of the RV does not. Still screaming, the murderously hysterical agent pulls her gun and tightens her throat-grip. That’s when the airstream door breaks in, exposing Ridley, still dressed in his suit, two hands on his flashlight-attached side-arm, its sight and beam centered on his partner’s chest. “CARPENTER, STAND DOWN!” he yells.

The strangling grip around Kurt’s throat relaxes, but only by a little. The conflicted woman rocks her head back in forth, her nostrils flaring in the bright light. Her beauty making her look only more savage. “We can’t trust him, Ridley!” she half-yells, half-pleads.

Ridley’s own face is under-lit, his teeth and whites of his eyes hot and frightening. “STAND DOWN NOW! THAT’S AN ORDER!” His gun’s sight never leaves his partner’s chest.

Slowly, the woman steps back, the safety of her gun clicking on as she holsters the weapon.

“All right, now what the hell happened?” Ridley asks the pair, as he lowers, but does not holster his weapon.

Kurt: As Kurt looks back and forth between the two blurry, darkened figures arguing–the sight of Ridley’s eyes causing Kurt to reflexively quiver in fear–does the boy finally relax, adrenaline-filled muscles, pounding head causing him to drift off into an enveloping, welcome darkness.

Brook: Skin Deep


10.07.1998, Wednesday night

GM: Brook’s ride is short and the stay is shorter. By the time he arrives at 149 Lynchwood, Undersheriff Bauman is carrying out a shot Yorkshire Terrier, and Mrs. Gunderson is weeping on her front doorstep, her left leg freshly bandaged. Witiko Falls’ chief lawman does not look pleased. “No more, Mrs. Gunderson. No more. If you do it again, I’ll have to charge you. Nobody wants that.” The old woman replies with an incoherent sob as the undersheriff takes the dead toy dog to his truck.

“What can I do for you, Ranger Barnes?” asks Hazel’s father as he spots the teen exiting the truck.

Brook: Dogs. Brook doesn’t mind dogs, they always look so nice on TV and in movies. But his experience with them culminates in a scrapbook of their turning on residents. Hopping out of the truck, the very well-armed young man extends a handshake as he approaches. “Sorry to take up your time, Undersheriff Bauman. I’ll be quick and blunt. I found something you might want to see.” Despite Mrs. Gunderson’s crying, he doesn’t want her to overhear and whispers the next part. “Human remains from Bad Medicine. In a wolf’s stomach. There’s a wedding band attached.”

GM: The cowboy-hatted lawman arches a brow. “Bad Medicine, you’re talking about Rockwell’s Fall, right, the old logging road? I appreciate the heads up, but frankly I don’t understand the house call. Kaniksu’s federal land. Your jurisdiction, not mine.” He sets down the shot canine in his truck bed, first wrapping it in a canvas. “So how can I help?”

Brook: Brook nods at the undersheriff’s connection between Rockwell’s Fall and Bad Medicine, watching him wrap the animal up. “I was hoping you could let me have a quick look at your new missing person cases. Remains found in Rockwell’s Fall are really rare, Undersheriff.” At least the young man knows why, now. However little a comfort it is.

“The finger isn’t fully gone. Recent. Wolf was shot at already, not with its pack, scavenging instead of hunting. Highly possible it killed someone in either our jurisdictions. Plus, I thought I could take a second to congratulate you. I saw Hazel today. First time since I was ten!”

GM: Harvey stops, his eyes searching Brook’s face as the teen flits between topics. “Have your mom contact me, and we’ll pass along our current 10-57 cases.” He offers the ranger cadet a firm handshake.

Brook: Brook returns the handshake just as firmly, finding it a little strange that he doesn’t want to broach the daughter subject. Or to hand over the cases to him. Though when he stops to think on it, it’s true he’s just a junior ranger. It’s easy to forget when he’s kit out like this and covered in gore. “Yes, sir. Sorry for the house call, guess I just got ahead of myself. Bad Medicine gets the heart going. Anything I can help with before I head home?”

GM: “Unless you want to adopt a dead terrier, not tonight.”

Brook: Brook nods a bit awkwardly, clearing his throat. “If you change your mind, I’m at the station all night. Sorry for the… harried meeting, bit shaken. Have a good night, Undersheriff.” With that, he turns and waves, heading back to his truck to start home. Hoping there’s coffee in the pot still.

GM: The undersheriff waves farewell in return, wishing Brook a safe night.

The ride back to Red Aspen is uneventful, but far from peaceful. Every tree harbors a shadow, and more than once he catches the night-shine of animal eyes in his high beams. Foghorns and loon-calls are eventually replaced by coyote howls and elk bulls pinning for rut. The once full moon begins to wither, and the air is as dry and cold as a bone. The home-sweet home sound of gravel pinging under his truck’s carriage announces his arrival. Looking around, Brook notices his mother’s truck is gone. Only Chet’s jeep remains parked at the station, his presence otherwise evident by the watch-tower’s light. Further above, the radio spires blink with aviation lights, pulsing into crimson splotches before fading into blackness.

Brook: People wonder and ask why he has trouble sleeping at night. It’s like a nightmare, like the moment the sun goes down everything wakes up. Like they think the moon is the only thing that gives them an advantage over fire and steel. Coming up to the station, he gets on the horn again up to the radio tower.

“Mad Cub to Skinny Chet. Your relief is here, safe from Mormon ghosts. Just let me put these bodies in the ‘meat box’ and I’ll take my perch. Over.”

GM: “10-4. Out,” comes Chet’s less than glib reply. A few minutes later, after the aforementioned task is completed, Brook is in his ‘perch’. The station’s top floor is surrounded by large, storm-resilient windows, and otherwise filled with radio equipment, large road and topographical maps, and little unused floor-space. Chet sits in the cockpit, chatting away with likely another of his ham radio girlfriends.

Spotting Brook, he signs off, “10-3, Goddesszilla, I got to skeedle loo doo. Catch you on the choice waves. Skinny Out.” The mustachioed, bespectacled man then spins the chair around. “Hidley ho, neighbor!” the park ranger says in his best (but not very good) impression of Ned Flanders. He stretches his long limbs and yawns.

Brook: Carrying all his things up into the station, he drops all but the plastic baggy on the ground next to the door, walking in looking like a soldier back from war. “Not right now, Chet. I’ve got paperwork to fill out and a lot of… bullshit to sort out.”

Carefully placing the finger down on the table in front of the man, he sighs. “I keep forgetting I’m not a real ranger. Undersheriff wants Mom to put the request in for missing person’s files.”

With the finger down, Brook unslings the rifle, pops the safety off, and pulls open the chamber, sending metal clattering onto the ground. Safety back on, and you have an inert firearm ready to be stored. “Where’s my mother?”

GM: Finger chunk. Or more properly, a massive, multi-thousand-dollar ring with a wedge of gory, foul-smelling meat stuck in the middle. Chet doesn’t lose his cookies like Harold did, but he certainly rears back. “Geez, Brook! What the heck is going on, kid. I’ve twice now covered for you. Mary might already have my hide.” He stares at the meat chunk wrapped in gold. “Is that… real?” he asks agog–though it is not clear whether he’s referring to the human flesh or the two-carat diamond.

Brook: Brook loves gems and crystals, though more a fan of raw ones. There’s an amethyst geode in his room, however small, a birthday present way back when. This is different, he’s more interested in the band. There might be a telltale inscription in the middle. Something he’ll have to figure out.

“Yeah, it’s real. Sorry, Chet, you’re right. Just–ugh. When I got there, something was watching me. It was feet from me, and I didn’t notice. If it jumped me…” Slumping against the wall, the boy pulls off the hat and tosses it onto the floor beside him. “And Mom’s already pissed at me and all that other personal garbage today.”

GM: Chet gives the bloody ring one last glance as he rubs his mustache. He then walks over to Brook, squatting as he asks, “Was it Sta-au? You didn’t cross the line, did you?”

Brook: Brook’s eyes shoot death at the man, swallowing down the compulsion to snarl at him. “Chet, stop using that word. I didn’t cross the line–the line came to me! It wasn’t some white woman’s ghost. It was an animal. A BIG animal, that was eating the carrion I tossed over the guard rail. I was feet from it. We made eye contact, Chet. How often do you go into the field and stare an animal bigger than you in the eye?”

GM: Chet is silent for a while as something swims beneath his spectacles. “I’ve paid my dues, kid. Everyone who wears the ranger uniform has.”

Brook: Brook is paying his dues in a different way than most. He was born into this life. Summers filled with lessons based around gore and death. And fear. But hearing that statement come from Chet, there’s a bit of a pang of guilt in his chest. “I know you have, Chet. My mother wouldn’t let you work here if she didn’t trust you.” There’s an awkward pause, but only for a few moments before that fire of indignation reminds him why he was talking.

“I was raised doing this same job though, Chet. There was no line. It was an animal with eyes I looked right into, we both know that doesn’t happen often without an attack. It went down the ravine again after, I finished my job, and I drove away before it came back for me. I wasn’t being irresponsible, I was being safe. It was big enough that even in my truck I wasn’t out of reach.”

GM: Chet stands up and faces the dark wilderness outside the window. “Geez dill-whippers, no one accused you of being irresponsible.” Brook then hears Chet mumble under his breath, “Shouldn’t have been out there alone.” He turns around, then, “But there is a line. Ask anybody. If you didn’t see it or feel it, you weren’t close–which is okie dokie.”

“Sta-au may wander onto our side, but we don’t wander onto theirs. Your mother taught me that. We’ve always followed that rule, and we’ve never lost a single ranger to Bad Medicine. Everybody wants to keep it that way. As for your mom, you know her better than any of us. But what you may not know is that these fires are riding her hard–and now there’s that U.S. marshal trying to call the shots. You know she doesn’t deal well with outsiders mucking up her yard, particularly ones too big for their britches.”

He folds his hands behind his head. “Anywho, it’s late, I’m hungry, and I missed a date with TornadoToto from Wichita. But I’m not going to leave you high and dry. What can I do to help before I head out?”

Brook: Brook sighs a little bit, wondering if he just isn’t aware. He’s not a ‘kid’ and squatting in front of him is demeaning. “Chet, you’re not Blackfoot. Can you just call them ghosts?” he asks, rubbing the back of his head. “I know there’s a line. But I didn’t come close to it. I’d feel it.” But then he hears about the fires. He’s chipping in more and more thanks to them, but the news of this marshal is news to him. Whoever he is, he sounds like a dick.

“Just need to find paperwork, I’ll be recording my findings on that ring. But I don’t think she followed me from Bad Medicine, so I’ll be fine. You go home and get some rest.” He’s eager to shower and start his night, the show is due to start soon. Having his mother’s help with his issues is going to have to wait, too.

GM: Chet half-shrugs, half-sighs as he gathers his coat and keys. “Roger that. See you on the next side of sunrise.” He then leaves the youth to man the station.

Brook: Brook sighs once he’s alone. Triple checks the front door’s locking and immediately goes to the bathroom. Pants in the ‘bad’ basket and the rest of his uniform in the good. Shit, shower, shave, and the young man feels like a new man, combing out his hair as he walks out the bathroom in the buff with nothing but his sidearm. Once he’s changed and dry, he’s up in his tower. Door closed and locked, lights dimmed to increase outside visibility.

Playlist is cued up in the system, phone is right by the seat, ham radio checked. But this is his private minute. Standing, Brook walks to the window and looks out over the town, appreciating it for a moment. Everyone is down there, their own mysteries and their own lives, sleeping soundly or delving into things they shouldn’t. It’s the subject of a lot of paintings, this view.

Finally though, he sits down in his seat and adjusts the mic, leaning into it before flipping the switch. “Good evening folks, this is Brook Barnes up here in Madcatcher station, starting the night off with you all. And damned if it hasn’t been quite the night. Before I start yet another wonderful starry night together, I’ve just got a quick little PSA I thought up on the way home. Rockwell’s Fall. Also known as Bad Medicine, the pass is the shortest route through the mountain–if you’re a tourist, dumb, suicidal, or all three. 12 people a year don’t make it through that pass. I just wanted to remind you of all the alternate routes, and there are plenty of them.” He then rattles off the various longer, if safer routes, then continues, “I’m going to start us out tonight with some Oasis, while I get set up here. Why? Cause ‘I don’t believe that anybody feels the way I do about you now.’ Here’s Wonderwall.”

With the press of a button, the mic goes dead, and the song travels up the towers and out through the entire town. Brook meanwhile sets up. Coffee, gloves, a few medical tools, a camera, and the relevant paperwork. Sitting back down, he pulls the gloves on and the finger out. Using the tweezers, he carefully tries to dislodge the ring from the finger.

After a few teasing pokes, it becomes very clear that he needs to leave this thing alone. Wrapping it back up, he grabs a shopping bag and double wraps it, putting it in the fridge for safekeeping and coming back, just filling out the paperwork. Maybe he can get some help from the outside. Solve this without bugging his mother. For now, he resolves to just take the night to digest the day, do paperwork, and put his new programming into play.

GM: The paperwork proves difficult for the ranger cadet, but not insurmountable. After all, there is no “Found Finger Inside Dead Wolf’s Belly Form”, not even at Red Aspen. Yet, as Brook told Chet, he was raised in this station, and he, like many of his non-white ancestors, discovered long ago that much can be learned by watching one’s elders. It takes him a while (and that’s even when he wisely decides not to officially document his encounter with the thing), but Brook wraps up and files away his paperwork with the satisfaction of one who is sure they have done a good job.

As usual, night breeds confidence in the young man. That confidence only grows as he further transitions into his role as Witiko Falls’ sole night-time radio jockey.

Brook: Brook won’t tell anyone about that thing yet. His mother’s plate is full without a hunt through a gulch for some starved black bear with fucked up eyes. Settling into his seat, he eats and sips coffee for the first few songs, his rifle ready and willing up against the console just a few feet away. Just because he’s out of the pass doesn’t mean the pass can’t come at him.

For now he gets into his role fully, mixing around the playlist to his liking between running pre-recorded night ads for local businesses. Beyond that, he reads news, gives updates on the fires, talks about the recent sports goings on at Witiko Falls. After that short hour of programming, he flips through his sketchpad and starts on the next segment he’d had planned.

“Well folks, there’s plenty of stuff to talk about on my end tonight. But after a small while of being up here on my perch, and a crazy few days, I’ve gotten to thinking my voice alone might not be enough to warm some of your midnight Witiko chills. I got my setup here to work with the phone a few nights ago. If you have something you wanna get off your chest, a subject you wanna broach with my listeners, or just wanna say ‘hi’, my number’s 293-1992. We’ll be open for calls for an hour or so. Let’s call it a test run. Hear from you all soon, and… let’s play it by ear. Until we get a new caller, I’ll just go ahead and keep going with the daily news.”

Brook does just that, watching and peeking up at the windows every so often. It’s an ingrained habit to scan his domain.

GM: It only takes a few minutes, but lights start flickering on his console as the first calls trickle in. “Hello? Hello?” says the first caller, terrible feedback warbling before they back away from their radio. “Am I on the air?”

Brook: Brook smiles a bit and interrupts himself, letting the listeners know they have a first call before answering it, recoiling for a moment before they back away and it’s fixed. “You certainly are, caller. This is Brook Barnes up in his stone tower. What can I do you for tonight?”

GM: “Well,” the female speaker says, “Let me first just say that I’m a big fan of your show. I listen to it every night when I vacuum my drapes and iron my husband’s clothes.”

Brook: Brook grins. Oh the flattery. “That’s great! Thanks so much for supporting… well, me not feeling so alone up here! I appreciate it. Did you have anything to share with the rest of our listeners?”

GM: “Oh, yes, I did! Or do. I wanted to ask about the gas leak at the hospital. I’m assuming you heard about the public service announcements from the mayor’s office and hospital board, but I was wondering if you or any other listeners have any other details. For example, do we know what kind of gas it was? Are there any other symptoms beside hallucinations? How long might these symptoms last? Has this happened before–and how likely is it that it will happen again?”

Brook: Brook frowns hearing about it, a bit of a pit dropping into his stomach. He has no idea about anything. “Well, caller, I’m personally not sure. If it’s a gas leak, I can only guess it’d be natural gas. The kind they make smells like rotten eggs? But again! Not sure. One thing I can assure you of, is that now that something has gone wrong, the hospital and the town will address it, so there’s no repeats. We all learn from our mistakes. If you stay tuned though, I’m sure there’s someone out there tonight who knows their stuff. Is there anything else you wanna say before we take our next caller?”

GM: “Well, um, I heard it was an odorless gas. Or maybe I just thought it was. But I’m relieved to hear you think everything is fine. Thanks for a great show. Any chance we’ll hear some Barry Manilow or Rod Stewart?”

Brook: “Unfortunately, a ranger doesn’t have much dealing with gases, ma’am. I’m sure we’ll know more soon. But I’m glad you like the show! Just for you, soon as this segment of calls is over, I’ll que up some of those golden pipes just for you. Have a great night, miss.”

GM: The next caller, also a woman, is a familiar one, Lola Three-Kills from the Res. “Yes, Brook, it’s Lola. I wanted to see if you can pass on a message to your listeners. We’re organizing a bonfire vigil for the Crowshoe family at 11 pm. Everyone who wishes to attend and show their support can meet us at Lame Bull’s stadium. I don’t know if you can rebroadcast that message a few times, but we want to get the word out to as many people as possible. Once again, 11 pm at the school stadium. Thank you.”

Brook: Taking the next caller, nothing could have prepared Brook for this news. They dismissed poor Cindy Crowshoe’s breakdown as fake. “Whoa, Lola, wait. Cindy was at school just today. Who passed away, what happened?”

GM: A long silence drags out on the line. “Oh, Brook… I thought you knew. I’m so sorry. Nadie died this morning. There was… an accident.” Lola’s voice starts to choke up. “I have to go. If you can, let people know about the vigil. 11 pm at the stadium. And please keep the Crowshoe family in your thoughts and prayers.” Lola hangs up.

Brook: Brook is silent for a moment after the call ends, clearing his throat and letting out a deep sigh. “Nadie Crowshoe was a good woman. She will definitely be missed. I wish I could leave the station, else I’d be down there with my classmate, trying to cheer her on. Folks, if you got the time, please do make your way down to the vigil to say a kind word or two. 11 pm at Lame Bull’s stadium. We’re nothing if not a community arm in arm right? But let’s get on to our next caller, hear more of what that community has to say tonight.”

GM: The next two callers stumble through impromptu condolences to the Crowshoe family. Clearly, that was not their original reason for calling–but it’s hard to gripe about the town trash-truck coming early or late right after hearing that a community member died.

Brook’s fifth caller is either too removed or too insensitive to care. It’s a younger voice, likely younger than Brook’s, and one that’s talking rapidly with a mixture of anger and nerves. “Yes, radio-guy? So I heard you talking about Rockwell’s Fall, and so I wanted to call in and speak my mind about how I think it’s wrong that the government is letting people hunt grizzly bear in the woods around the pass. They say it’s to control the population, but that’s… that’s not right.”

“Humans have a population issue–should we manage it the same way we manage other species? Yes, bears are predators, and some get aggressive. But then, like, should human males showing aggression be put down? Like as a service to our species?. Like, all male humans who are potentially dangerous to other males or females should be put down. And to those hunters that say the licenses bring money, well, I say there is a way to start having an economy that places value on life rather than death–and no, this isn’t unrealistic or a fantasy. Those hunters could have just donated the money–if you just donate money to land for animals instead of paying to murder them, that would actually make you a hero. And if we stopped mining, paving, destroying wildlife habitat, we wouldn’t have a wildlife problem!”

“And to the hunters who get ‘good feelings’ from killing–you are what’s known as a psychopathic killer. Thinking about them killing bears makes me angry, and I try to feel nothing but compassion. It’s really hard to feel compassion for people who delight so much in ending the life of an innocent creature, thinking that there’s a ‘sport’ going on and are subject to a legitimized murder. Shame on everyone involved. We don’t deserve to live among animals!”

Brook: Book has heard this kind of person scream in his face before and he knows how to handle them. He doesn’t waste much time on it. He goes over the points she’s terribly wrong in, empathizing with her over the grizzlies, and giving her the rundown on the new permits going out to rich assholes. Though what he really tries to drive home is that none of this will probably happen in Witiko Falls. Not only is it hard to get here but the wildlife is different and more aggressive than usual.

“Look, I know you think you’re doing right. But you need to do your reading, and you need to not be bigoted. If you’re insulting and aggressive going into an argument people will just disagree with you on reflex to how you act towards them. You don’t make it super appealing to people who might be on your side either. Any other questions before we go to the next caller?”

GM: Once again, Brook leaves a caller scrambling for words. The young girl stammers a bit before blurting out, “W…y-es, yes, I do have another question! Do you know that you’re a stuck up murder-loving hypocritical pig!? You think you know it all just because you have a radio mic, but you’re just a kid! They’re hunting now–right up in the pass! I’m never listening to your show again–and, and, I hope a grizzly bear eats you so the human gene pool won’t be so stupid!!”

And once again, Brook has another caller hang up. Her call, however, prompts a deluge of others. Nearly all are pro-hunting, but a few are against the licenses. Even fewer callers, regardless of their positions, are markedly articulate or measured. Despite all the activity and obvious interest in the ‘program’, Brook might feel relief when the broadcast is interrupted by a CB crackle: “Break, break.” It’s his mother.

Brook: Brook rolls his eyes a little and just laughs it off after she hangs up, though another caller comes up about hunting, then another, and another. He’s about to call for a break when the radio crackles to life. The current call is ended and he flicks it onto the playlist. Barry Manilow’s ‘Mandy’ first up. He grabs the receiver and his pad of paper, ready to write down what’s happening. “Red Aspen station receiving you, over.”

GM: “Red Aspen, I need you to 10-5 a 10-35. 10-63. Over.” Back at the station, with the codes on hand, the message is clear: Mary needs him to relay a major alert, and is waiting for him to signal he’s ready.

Brook: “Ready. Go ahead, Mama Bear. Over.” Brook braces himself, pen on blank paper waiting for her relay.

GM: Mary’s flat voice comes over the radio: “This is an emergency alert. A man has escaped from the State Psychiatric Hospital. He is considered armed and extremely dangerous. The man is Caucasian, appears to be in his late sixties to seventies, white-haired, and green-eyed, and is missing his left hand. If you see a man matching this description, do not engage. Call 911 immediately. 10-5, Red Aspen. Out.”

Brook: “10-69, Mama Bear. 10-5 to town authorities; 11 PM memorial gathering at Lame Bull Stadium. Lots of people out after dark with a 10-96 at large. Out.” Shit. This is bad. Brook interrupts the song halfway through and his tone is deathly serious.

“We’re cutting this segment short for an emergency report.” Brook reads off the information word for word, and repeats it several times so everyone is clear. “Please stay in-doors if possible, everyone. Locks your doors for tonight. We don’t know where this man is, but local authorities are working to apprehend him. I’ll give out more information as it receive it.” With that, he toggles the music back on to the next song. Another Manilow song, just so he doesn’t rip that first lady out of her song.

GM: “Wilco, Red Aspen. Mama Bear is 10-6. Out,” comes Mary’s delayed reply. As Manilow finishes his serenade, eleven o’clock rolls around.

Brook: Brook sighs a little and leaves the receiver alone after that, hanging it back up on its little hook. 11 PM. He picks up his microphone for an announcement. “11 PM rolls around. Because of our recent alert, I can’t condone making the trip to the memorial service. But please join me in a moment of silence for the Crowshoe Family, and show your support when you can. For one minute, our programming will cease. Then we’ll return for some news, and the night goes on.” He does just that, cutting the mic and stopping the playlist. Silence. Standing up, he takes the moment to look around the windows of the tower, checking his surroundings for anything wrong or dangerous.

GM: Is there a madman in his woods? He cannot tell. But from his vantage, he spots a distant section of the forest aflame, a red-white blur in a sea of blue-green black. Smoke rises to smear gray across a small stretch of stars like gauze over gunshots.

Brook: It’s a pretty sight, however dangerous it is, and however much it’s taking away his mother’s attention. It’s a nice blend of colors, maybe something to paint another night. After his minute of radio silence, he sits back in his chair and gets back on his microphone. Another go of the emergency warning and description, and a tiny bit of other local news, and he flips the playlist back on, just sitting sipping coffee. It’s going to be quite a night, he can tell. Even if it’s quiet, his head is loud.

GM: The fire plays out like Brook’s private light show–though he knows from the radio chatter and plane drops that it is far from private. Eventually, the distant firestorm is cleaved in two and left to slowly die out. From his miles-away vantage, Brook cannot help but perceive the smoldering forest fires as two glowing eyes staring at him. Watching. Waiting. Hungry.

Brook: Brook has just as rough a night as he thinks it’ll be. Every shadow that moves outside his tower is now that creature from the pass. But he keeps the vigil, rifle in his lap, doing his programming until the greens and blacks brighten into oranges and yellows. Like every morning before it, it deflates the boy, watching the road for his relief so he can sleep a few hours before school. Despite that, he hopes it’s his mother. There’s a lot to tell her.

GM: Brook sees her truck’s headlights cut through pre-dawn darkness, another pair of lights staring out from the now grey-black forest. She radios her return to Red Aspen, then trudges up the flight of stairs. Despite the exhaustion that must drag her every sinew, her first stop is the top floor where her adoptive son mans the radio. Covered in soot and reeking of wood-smoke, gasoline, and fire-retardant chemicals, Mary takes off her hat, the desiccated grizzly balls rattling on the table. She strips off her gloves and lays a strong hand on Brook’s face. As before, there is a slight smile–and a slight frown. She breathes in deeply, then sits beside Brook. Her dark eyes regard him, blinking slowly, as she waits.

Brook: Brook has her coffee ready for her when she walks in, he never knows how to deal with ‘that’ face, or when she’s like this. Everything just sounds like an excuse in his head. Tired eyes regarding her, looking a little confused and more than a little worried, he starts where he thinks he should.

Standing again, he brings her the now-chilled finger, the completed paperwork, and his sketchbook, sitting down. “I found this in the stomach of the carcass on Bad Medicine. Undersheriff Bauman said he’ll send me the missing persons reports with your okay.”

But when he reaches for his sketchbook, he looks up almost scared at what his mother might think of it. “Before we talk about school… I also saw something else at Bad Medicine. Ma, I… have you ever seen something in the forest, you weren’t sure you were supposed to?”

GM: Mary nods at the offered coffee and silently reads over the paperwork. She then looks over the finger chunk and its ring, then nods slowly in regards to contacting the county sheriff’s department. At the mention of seeing things on Bad Medicine, Mary takes a long sip of the coffee, sets the mug down, and places her hands on her soot-stained knees. She looks her son in his eyes, as if reading his thoughts and fears, then motions to the sketchpad.

Brook: This isn’t unusual. She’s tired, she worked for a day and a night, and she deserves a break, not having to speak. But all her reactions are… favorable so far. Much as they can be the way they’re ‘talking’. When she motions to his sketchpad, he slowly opens it to the right page. Those eyes staring back up at him, before he passes it over to his mother to see.

“It was watching me. Probably the whole time. There was a vehicle, I gave them directions. The child pointed out a shape with glowing eyes. I got them past the roadkill and went to look. It was feet from me, Ma. It was darker than dark, but it moved and I caught it. I looked it right in its eyes. Barrel pointed into its face. It backed off down the ravine and took the wolf’s body.”

GM: Mary looks at the picture for a long time. She eventually breaks her own silence. “Your grandfathers would say you could steal souls with that hand.” Handing over the sketchpad, she gestures to the picture and adds kindly, “Next time you return to Bad Medicine, give it back.”

Brook: Brook takes it back and stares at it for a moment, looking slowly back at his mother. “Does that mean you’ve seen her before? Whatever this is…?”

GM: Mary nods.

Brook: Brook shudders, looking back down at those eyes. “And you’re okay. I’m okay. What is she?”

GM: Mary reaches over and turns a page. “You know better than to stare at a predator’s eyes.” And then, to answer Brook’s question, Mary says, “A part of nature, my son, but not life.”

Brook: Brook feels a small sense of release when his mother turns the page, slowly closing the book back up and keeping it on his lap. Predator, part of nature, but not of life. Is she saying this creature is death? Then why are the two of them alive? “It kept me alive. I was prey, eyelocked, but I’m still living. I want to learn all I can of it, so I can keep everyone safe. Does it have a name?”

GM: “Neither wind nor fire is its name,” the thick-bodied woman says as she looks out a window. “Some call them wendigo or stau-au. Not I. Other tribes call them nalusa chito or impa shilup, the soul-eater or shadows of that great black being. Others name them nalusa falaya, the long black beings for how they slither and not walk. Others say they are the shilombish, the outside shadows, which seek out the shilup or inside shadow of every beast, the ghost that shilombish frees by devouring the shilup’s body of clay. While the inside shadow returns to the Great Spirit, the outside shadow remains in the Velvet. But sometimes, they wander. Restless. They linger, moaning to frighten surviving friends, to make them forsake the spot, and seek another place to live. By night, they howl like the coyote or screech like the owl. Their cry speaks of bad things. When a true coyote howls, or a true owl screeches, another coyote or owl replies. But when the shilombish mimics the sound of either beast, silence is the only answer.”

She then turns back to her son, adding, “But I don’t need the name of wind to know that it blows, nor the name of fire to know that it burns.”

Brook: Listening, it all sounds good. Makes sense. But there are… holes. It didn’t go after any of those things, it didn’t make a sound, it went after bodies. It took flesh and bone. This is going to take time. He’ll have to figure out what it is. Maybe then he can assess whether it is a threat, and how to protect himself against it.

GM: Mary then drags her chair closer and curls her muscled hand on the nape of Brook’s neck. “Now we speak of life.” It is not a question. “Of school.”

Brook: But then the real horror happens, hearing his mother get closer and wrap that firm hand around his neck. To talk about school. “Yes, Mom. It’s my fault. I didn’t set my alarm properly when I took a rest in my truck over lunch hour. Then the dart. It was an accident. I’ve never thrown a dart before. I’ll be serving an in-school suspension. Writing a paper on consequences.”

GM: “The principal called. I have to go tomorrow to a meeting. They are talking about expelling you.” Mary’s weathered face is close when she adds, “That makes me ashamed, son.”

Brook: Expelling him? That’s horseshit! They know he has a job besides school, a responsibility to the town. Can’t they just give him a break? Brook is speechless for a few moments, hearing her say she’s ashamed of him. She has every right to be, but it still hurts. Deeply. “Did they say why?” is all he can manage through the lump of shame in his throat.

GM: She releases his neck, a slight frown of shame but also of sadness. “Your grades. You keep sleeping in class.”

Brook: Brook winces a little at his mother taking her hand back, hating that look of shame on her face. “It was a stupid question. I’m sorry.” But at the same time, it’s a struggle to do things this way. His mother knows her son can’t sleep when the moon was out, and about his nightmares when he can sleep. “I’ll do better with my grades. Study more at night. And I’ll… I will try my best not to fall asleep. I don’t want to disappoint you.”

GM: She leans back and sighs. “There are mountains to carry, and there are mountains to cross. I will go to the meeting.” She stands up, her muscles taut from a long day and night’s labors. She rubs her shoulder. “I am tired, son.” She then places both hands on his shoulders and looks down intently. “I am very pleased you are safe.” A single muscled hand then cups her son’s cheek. A smile tugs at her lips. “So big.”

Brook: Mary Madcatcher didn’t birth the young man, but she may as well have with the sway she has over him. Feeling her hands on his shoulders, he has to bite his tongue to keep emotions down as she smiles at him, if just for a moment. “I’ll do better,” he mutters, slowly putting a hand on hers. “You should sleep. I’ll get ready for school and finish that paper quickly so I can return to classes normally. I’ll show them I can still be a good student on top of a ranger.”

GM: She pats his face in another rare gesture of affection. “Wake me before you go.” With that she lumbers out of the room, limping a bit as she allows fatigue to strip away her strength.

Brook: They sleep wherever they drop, usually. Though Brook has decorated the room here just a little, seeing as how he’s here during the night. Despite that, he always keeps it clean for his mother and for Chet if they needed to crash. He’s even found an older TV and fit it with bunny ears. Though that’s more in case he has someone over.

He doesn’t idly watch her limp away though, he follows her and puts a hand on her back to signal her to use him as support. Once he’s in his room, he grabs two sets of clothes for the day and leaves her to sleep. In his old clothes, he starts his morning routine. Today is going to be rough, but it’s going to be worth it to see her proud. At least she’ll get a few hours’ rest before it’s time to go.

Brook does his morning exercise, showers, and dresses. Following the clock closely before it’s nearly time to get out of here. Brewing one last pot of coffee, all that’s left to do it sign out, flicking the microphone back on. “Well, everyone, it’s nearly another morning in Witiko Falls. Time for me to get going. If you’re a classmate, I’ll see you soon. If you’re a listening at home I’ll see you tonight. One last time before I’m headed out the door, I want to remind everyone of our emergency alert–”

Reading from the page one last time, he describes the man and wishes everyone a safe day, before flicking the mic off and the playlist back on. Ever so quietly, he makes his way to the bedroom door, knocking to wake his mother up, bag already on his shoulders, full of his school–and sketchbooks.

GM: Mary groggily rouses. Still dressed in her work-pants and boots, she throws a blanket over her sleeveless undershirt and her hard-packed muscles and wide breasts. “Did you eat yet?” she asks.

Brook: “A few hours ago, Ma. I have a lunch packed, too. Do you need anything before I head out?”

GM: She shakes her head. “Did you sleep?” There is not a lot of hope in her tone, but she asks it all the same.

Brook: “No. Still not able too, Ma. I don’t even feel tired until the sun comes up. I’m sorry.” It’s something they’ve been dealing with for a long time. She knows the answer.

GM: A mother has to ask. Has to hope. She nods. “Plans for after school today and this weekend?”

Brook: “I’m picking up litter for my math teacher in the parking lot after school. Then I promised to take Danny and his girlfriend to the record store. This weekend I’m not sure about, besides sleeping and doing the night shift. Is there anything you wanted me to do?”

GM: Mary’s quiet a while as she contemplates the question. If she were a man, she might rub her morning stubble, but she settles for scratching her stomach. “Today, you take the evening off. Just be back by midnight to cover things here. But I’ll need you for the weekend. We’re stretched thin right now. Also, there’s Nadie Crowshoe. Her funeral is Saturday morning. We should go if we can.”

Brook: Brook nods a little, thinking back to Crowshoe. “Cindy, her daughter, freaked out yesterday… I can’t believe she was even in class. But understood. I hear you have your hands full with a joke of a U.S. marshal, so I’ll do what I can to help. I wouldn’t complain if you sent me back to the pass to give that shadow its soul back, though.”

He grins a little at his joke, but steps out the way so she can leave the bedroom. “I made a fresh pot of coffee. You get some rest today too, Ma. I’ll be in the school library until school is out.”

GM: Mary nods appreciatively and makes her way to the coffee pot. “Keep your radio on, after school, in case I need you.” With that parting instruction, Brook is ‘free’ to go head out to school–or at least his in-school suspension.

Brook: It’s all in his bag. Radio and sidearm. Box of capsule cartridges in the truck along with the rest of his work stuff. “I will, Ma. Please don’t push yourself too hard while I’m gone.” With that, he heads out. Back into his truck. Gun and radio locked up in the glove box before he starts off. Driving to school at least is safe, the sun isn’t out yet. Falling asleep at the wheel would be a disaster.

He gets to to the school earlier than normal. An entire day in the library won’t be so bad. He’ll finish that paper asap. Then maybe… read up on his new ‘friend’ in the pass. Today is going to be a day, and he isn’t going to sleep until lunch. Then, not until after school. Least being here early means there’s a chance he can see Danny.

Hazel: Attila Awakens


Wednesday night, 10.08.1998

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, Mom would say…

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

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

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

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

That is MY house.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel: “Yes. That is fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve gone insane. I am insane.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have to find out.”

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Parasomniac Calder_R

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