Witiko Falls: Disillusion

Phase I, Case File 1.11

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Brook: Skin Deep


10.08.1998, Thursday afternoon

GM: Nelson raises his hammer above his head and shouts like an atavistic neanderthal. The air cracks and echoes with the gun fire and the bullet’s devastating collision into the old rotted farmhouse. Birds burst from the chimney and feces-streaked gables, tearing through the sky in instinctual panic. If there are other sounds inside the old farmhouse, it is hard to tell–but Brook swears he sees movement in an upper level window. It could have been nothing more than the reflection of a fleeing bird. It could be his imagination. It could be more.

However, Mr. Epstein then breaks onto the scene, a semi-automatic Makarov pistol in his hand. His back is to the outhouse as he kneels in a shooter’s position. The man’s forehead gleams with sweat as he demands, “Explain.”

“The one-armed psycho’s in the house!” Nelson shouts.

Brook: Brook’s eyes immediately snap to that upper window as he spots the movement, his gun following his vision. There’s a quick squint before he snaps to the new motion. Epstein’s presence is a weight off his shoulders in one way and a new small panic in another. He puts a hand on Nelson’s back, then whispers to follow behind closely and stick with the group while he crouch-runs the football boy to the outhouse and their teacher.

One perk of a smaller handgun is how easily he can use it in one hand. He keeps the other on Nelson until they get to the biffy, then pulls out the cloth and buckle from his pocket to show. “There’s a drawing in the outhouse, in shit. Fresh shit, sir. Satanic bullshit. Found this cloth and buckle, state psych. Movement in the upper windows. I borrowed your 1911. We need to get out of here.”

GM: True to his word, Nelson backs Brook’s play. Mr. Epstein considers the pair and the situation intensely, but quickly. After another glance up at the upper windows, the math teacher passes Brook his jeep keys. “We’re leaving now to go find the proper authorities. Brook, you drive. Nelson, I will cover your six as we head to the vehicle on my count. I will ride shotgun, and if there is to be any more discharge of firearms, it will be my hand. Understood?”

Nelson looks to Brook.

Brook: Brook isn’t an idiot. Three vs. one are good odds, but not to take on someplace who might have traps and is guaranteed to get the drop on them. This is a wolf’s den. Best case scenario is that the lunatic isn’t here and doesn’t see them. Police can ambush him later, that way. Worst case, there is a gun sight on them this very second.

The young man stuffs the buckle and fabric back into his pocket, grabs the keys in his now-free hand and scans around before speaking again. “I want to send Nelson into town in the jeep and keep whoever might be in this farmhouse here, but I agree, sir. Last movement I saw was in the upper windows. On your count.”

GM: The next moments are an adrenaline blur as the trio rush to the jeep. There’s the tense, breathless moment when the ignition won’t turn on the first try, when an eagle splits the air with its shriek, when a sudden gust catches the edge of the left-behind tarp. Muscles and jaws tense with the anticipation of something. Anything.

But no gunshots fire from the windows. No axe-weilding madman bursts from the porch. No Satanic screams punctuate the sound of rolling tires. Instead, there’s just the vague and sickening adrenaline crash that leaves the three men almost wishing something does or did happen–and wondering if baseless fears are what drove them from the farmhouse.

As if giving voice to that doubt, Nelson asks, “Do you think he was there?”

“That’s not our job to find out,” Mr. Epstein says. “Our job, like the public announcement said, is to alert the proper authorities.” Turning to Brook, he says, “First occupied house we see, you pull in, and I’ll call 911.”

Brook: If what Brook saw in the window was the escapee, his first thought is that the wolf is going to use this time to flee his den and find another. But the teenager glad this happened so soon after they arrived, they’ll make their statements and the day still won’t be over. The adrenaline crash, however, is probably something that all three of them are used too. Hunter, athlete, soldier. Speaking of soldier, Brook quickly pulls the slide back and the safety on, dropping an unused cartridge onto his lap and offering the now-inert firearm across the bench to its owner.

“If he wasn’t there, he WAS there. It was too recent a scat track to risk it. If I saw bear shit that fresh I’d leave, too. Remember to tell them I have evidence on me.” As the teacher says, however, Brook pulls into the first house he sees with lights on. He quickly parks there and hops out to dig into his bag. He needs to sketch the symbol before it leaves his head.

GM: Mr. Epstein nods, takes back his firearm, and then hustles out of the jeep. He knocks and waits momentarily at the front door of the isolated, but thankfully not abandoned, farmhouse before its owner opens the door and invites him inside.

Meanwhile, Brook’s artistry steals another ‘soul’. He eschews a pencil and uses the more raw medium of charcoal. The sooty-nub soon dirties his right hand as he begins recreating the sigil. Five points. Five lines. Five words.

But no, Brook realizes as he regards his own work, those numbers aren’t right. There was a sixth point, directly in the center of the pentagram. Unconnected from the others. Initially, he had dismissed it as a nail or errant mark. Similarly, his mind had had overlooked the sixth ‘line’. A circle, connecting all the five points of the pentagram. The sixth ‘word’ also perverts its definition. Below the occult seal, someone had painted: EPH2627. Now, looking at his own hypnagogic sketch, Brook sees the truth. Six points. Six lines. Six words. 6.6.6. The Number of the Beast.

Brook: Brook puts the finishing touches on his work and slowly leans up against the jeep like he’s going to melt. It’s been so long since he could lay his head down to rest. Swiner coffee isn’t his favorite, but it’s almost definitely his next stop after the police drill him on what happened. Everything is here. 666, the words, the madness, and the seeming desperation. But those words bother him. Three letters and four numbers. It reminds him of the times he’s had to see the principal or when crazies shout at a native to accept God. John 12-41, Revelations 4-9. Could this be a Bible verse? Having seen a pocket Bible in his teacher’s car, he quickly flips through the pages until he finds it.

Ephesians 26-27. In your anger, do not sin, do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.

Bristles run up the teen’s back and his eyes stare death and fury back down the road. He adds it to his sketch, drawing a stark line from the verse to EPH2627. This escapee is going to deliberately go against this. He is going to hurt someone for his ‘god’ after the sun goes down.

GM: As Brook attempts to recreate the sigil by hand, time ticks awkwardly for the unoccupied athlete. Nelson eventually peers over and asks. “So, have you ever shot someone before?”

Brook: Nelson’s question jerks him back to reality and he blinks for a moment in response. “I’ve shot AT people. Poachers trying to run. Warning shots. Never killed anyone. Hey, watch the jeep. I’ll be back in a second, going to check on the teacher.”

With his sketchbook under his arm, he steps back quickly to the house and lets himself in to look for Mr. Epstein.

GM: Brook almost collides with his math teacher as the man is just about to exit the house. He looks at Brook expectantly, but does not snap at him for leaving the jeep, particularly when he pops his head out and sees Nelson still waiting safely in the vehicle.

Brook: It makes him jump. There’s nothing worse than a surprise, even a good one. When his teacher looks at him expectantly, he takes a step back for comfort. “Are they coming? Do we have any instructions? They might want statements from each of us.”

GM: The tall veteran raises his hands as if to pacify the hypomanic teen. “Calm down. Deputy Lowder and a U.S. marshal are on their way. Our instructions are to remain where we are, and yes, I imagine they will want to talk with us.”

Brook: Brook’s face turns sour. U.S. marshal. Of course he’ll probably notice the young Madcatcher and be a prick about things. Mr. Epstein isn’t wrong about his hyper attitude, however. This is a hunt, the clock is ticking, and someone’s safety is on the line. It’s been Brook’s simple function as a human being to hunt since the moment he was pulled from that river. It’s simple, thus it’s almost a comforting practice. But as the teacher speaks, he still opens his sketch book to show off what he’d made. “I made a composite of the fresh symbol.”

GM: Mr. Epstein regards the drawing. “A pentagram. That will no doubt be helpful.” He pauses again. “You know, Brook, the pentagram is a rather unique geometric shape known as a star polygon. At its core, it’s a regular pentagon whose exterior angles are all 72°. By extending its lines, one forms the pentagram, and if one connects the points, one forms another regular pentagon exactly equal in ratio to the first, save that its orientation is reversed. This sequence can be continued in both directions, outwards and inwards, without end. Also, the pentagram has a special number hidden inside called the Golden Ratio, which equals approximately 1.618.” He points to several areas.

“The golden ratio, or golden section, or a hundred other ‘golden’ names, is a geometric discovery attributed to the Pythagoreans. It exemplifies the beautiful patterning inherent in geometry, and by extension the universe–and how that patterning is irrational yet no less enchanting. In other words, the golden ratio defines a logarithmic spiral that personifies the universe, and its number is tucked away right there hiding in plain sight in the pentagram. The golden ratio reveals itself to be an irrational number when figured algebraically. In short, if the lowest possible expression of the golden ratio is a/b, then the golden spiral demonstrates that a/b equals b divided by a – b. But if a/b is the lowest value of the ratio than b/(a – b) is lower than the lowest. How can its smallest form reveal a smaller version of its form? It contradicts itself into infinity. Which is rather fascinating if you think about it.”

Brook: Brook looks at the drawing he’s made and wonders why Mr. Epstein kind of just brushes over the fact there’s a Satanic threat on it. But as he listens to the teacher go on, he slowly starts connecting the dots to what he’s saying. It really is kind of beautiful. Patterns in patterns that continue without end, breezing past what they can count or make reasonable sense of. The pattern works visually in his head, slowly sprawling out like the teacher explains. But there’s another pattern that it reminds him of. Another more natural spiral.

“Like a spider’s web. No one teaches the spider, it’s an instinct to a perfect geometry,” he finally replies, but shoves it out of his head. There’s something concrete he needs to get across. “But look at the message here, Mr. Epstein! If he’s made all this in an inverted pentagram, he’ll do the opposite to spit in the Judeo-Christian god’s face. He’s going to hurt someone, after the sun goes down. I should be going back to that shack with the police, to smoke him out! I could track him! If that was him in the window then he saw us, we could be targets!”

Brook is concerned, of course, someone close to him could get hurt. But there’s something more in the back of his head. Scratching. Like when you try to quit smoking, a hand on your spine that in no uncertain terms is compelling you. It thrums through his body like low bass, screaming at him through a racing heart. There’s another predator in his town. His territory.

GM: Mr. Epstein’s tall frame leans over his anxious student. The afternoon’s golden rays reflect off his receding hairline. “Brook, you’ve done your part. Precisely. Now let the proper authorities do theirs.”

Brook: Brook wilts a little hearing the reasonable course of action. Of course the teacher is right, but it isn’t stopping him from wanting to jump in the truck with the Sheriff’s Department and go in guns blazing. His age stings him again.

GM: Mr. Epstein then looks up and away at a distant trail of dust down the road. “Speak of the devil…” the geometry teacher ironically half-mumbles as he points a long-fingered hand at the approaching undersheriff’s patrol truck.

A few moments later, Undersheriff Bauman slides out of his county sheriff’s department vehicle. The starch–uniformed, barrel–chested, slim–waisted lawman nods to Mr. Epstein as he walks toward the teacher–student dyad. “Deputy Lowder radioed me. I happened to be out by Brody’s farm, so I decided to drop by. The marshal should be here soon.”

“Sheriff,” Mr. Epstein nods in return, extending his hand.

“Thanks for calling, Stan,” the lawman says with a fierce but cordial handshake.

Brook: As Mr. Epstein points out the truck in the distance, he turns to the teacher’s car and yanks out his shirt again, clothing himself to be a bit more professional. Especially seeing how it’s the undersheriff. As the adults greet each other, he get his things ready to show off, the piece of cloth and buckle, and the drawing.

GM: Hazel’s father then nods to Brook. “Fancy seeing you again, cadet. I assume you were the one who spotted the buckle?” He waves to Nelson as the JV jock climbs out of the jeep.

Brook: Brook nods back and hands both articles off to the man, still rocking on the heels of his feet and nearly vibrating. “Yes, Undersheriff Bauman. These were both in the outhouse.” He outlines everything. The stenciling on the cloth, stating ‘State Psychia-’ before the rip. The symbols written in FRESH feces, the fresh part that one that prompted his retreat from the area. Brook even explains as best he can that the symbols mean he’ll hurt someone after the sun goes down. ‘Ephesians 26-27; In your anger do not sin, do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold’ coupled with ‘give the Devil his dues’.

“As well, I saw movement in the upper window of the farm house. I had a civilian with me, so I decided to retreat instead of go after it. The meaning though. If this was him, he could act tonight. And he’s most likely moved on from the farmhouse after seeing us three around his hiding place.”

GM: The undersheriff accepts the offered buckle and strap by hooking his pen under the former. He sticks the item inside a sterile evidence bag. He then uses the same pen to begin jotting down notes in a pocket-sized steno pad. His hat-shaded brow raises at Brook’s mention of a ‘civilian’ stopping the sophomore from ‘going after it’. He taps the pen on the pad, then smiles. “You did your mother proud, kid.”

Brook: Brook curses himself for a moment as he sees the undersheriff handle the evidence with a pen, and wonders if he looks like an amateur for handling it directly. Gloves. He needs to start carrying cloths with him wherever he goes. Like when he tipped over Hazel’s purse earlier that day. But he still can’t help but start to beam a little at the praise he gets. Somehow it even helps to calm the call to action in his spine.

GM: Undersheriff Bauman then looks up at the sound of his deputy driving down the road, a male passenger sitting beside her in the patrol car. Deputy Lowder pulls into the now-crowded driveway. She nods to both adult men. “Boss. Stan.”

Hudson: A man gets out of the car. His girth precedes the rest of him. He’s fat. Put a pillow where his head is, and his doughy belly could serve as a beanbag chair. Past where such a pillow could rest, chins flow out from the collar of his shirt like magma leaking from an upset volcano. Pale blue eyes peer out from underneath deep hoods over a squat, tomato-like nose. His black eyebrows are afterthoughts on his face, thin and wisp-like, and look as if a strong breath might simply blow them away. His hair is black but receding. It’s lost a decisive battle against baldness, and it’s only a matter of time until the war is over and his pate is fully hairless. A thick but neatly trimmed mustache stretches from below his nostrils to just over his lips. All told, the man’s countenance resembles a walrus deprived of its tusks and resignedly cognizant of that fact. He wears a dark gray trench coat over a mid-gray flannel suit, a faded maroon cashmere necktie, and dark brown derby shoes.

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The marshal’s hooded gaze sweeps over the scene–and then fixes on the newly-sealed evidence bag. “Undersheriff. Situation?”

GM: The former Kelpie QB picks up the evidence bag and tosses it to the U.S. marshal with a lazy arc that catches the sun. “I think your man might be escalating. Add littering to his jacket.”

He then turns to the locals, adding, “This here is Deputy Marshal Hudson M. Schofeld. From the U.S. marshals office way down in Boise.” He then turns back to the portly federal lawman. “Deputy Schofeld, this here is Stan Epstein, a math teacher at Falls High, and two of his students.” He gestures to each. “Nelson Judd. Brook Barnes. Both sophomores. Brook here’s the one who found that buckle as well as…” He turns back to Brook. “Well, you show him.”

Hudson: The fat man catches the bag with surprising dexterity and turns it over in his hands, thoughtfully chewing the lip under his thick mustache like he might a candy bar. He gives a grunt of acknowledgement to the locals. “Let’s see it, Mr. Barnes.”

GM: Harvey and Stan nod at Brook to do so.

Brook: Brook’s eyes rest on the deputy first, and a bit too long before he scans the man who’s stepped out. This is the sea cow giving his mother trouble, and it seems he isn’t here for the fires. Swallowing his instinctual hatred for now, he keeps his back straight and his mouth shut for a few more moments. That is, until he’s called again. Stage fright isn’t an issue for him thankfully.

He steps forward, keeps his sketchbook open and facing Deputy Schofeld, and goes over every bit of info he just told the undersheriff, showing him the composite of the symbols made at the scene and the stenciling on the fabric through the bag.

“I’m a junior park ranger, sir. In my experience, the feces was fresh enough that the one who did it could be close. I saw movement in the farmhouse later, and then us three retreated. Like I said, if this was the escapee, he’ll make his move when the sun goes down. That’s it for the scene. Did you have any questions?”

GM: The local deputies cede the questioning to Hudson as Harvey takes Tina aside, just out of casual earshot, and begin to trade notes about another case.

Hudson: The fat deputy listens patiently to Brook’s testimony and then grunts again. “Soon.”

His gaze sweeps back to the two officers, his voice raising just enough to be heard. “Undersheriff. Deputy. I’ll give better odds to my losing fifty pounds than Moe still being in that farmhouse, but we’re giving it a sweep just to be sure.”

His gaze moves to Mr. Epstein and the adjacent jeep. Registering the firearm in his hand and the military-grade binocs around his neck, silently adding up facts. “We could use a man with military training, Mr. Epstein. I’ll deputize you if you want to help, and won’t hold it against if you don’t.”

GM: Harvey nods. “All right.”

The geometry teacher opens his mouth as if to quickly accept, but he pauses momentarily as he regards his students. “Boys, can you call your parents and tell them to pick you up here, rather than at the school?”

Nelson half-shrugs, half-nods. “Yeah, I can call my dad. Or mom.”

Brook: Brook twitches lightly at the word ‘soon’ coming from the fat man’s mouth, and shoots a fidgeting look up the road at the farm they just left. All of this is getting out of his hands again, his teacher being the one recruited and offered a deputy position and not him. Even asking his students to be picked up here!? It chafes, even if Nelson agrees to it. Madcatcher, that name is his mother’s but it might make her proud to see him following it!

“Deputy Schofeld! Undersheriff Bauman! I’m a park ranger, a good shot, and I’m the one who saw everything. My sidearm is in my truck at school, but I can join the hunt!”

Hudson: Hudson’s jowls crease in a frown. “How old are you, son?”

GM: “Ranger cadet,” Harvey corrects. “But the rest is true,” he adds a bit more kindly.

Brook: Brook straightens again at the fat man’s words, and his heart rises and sinks at Harvey’s own. “15, sir! But I’m Mary Madcatcher’s boy; she doesn’t afford me being anything less than rock solid!”

Hudson: Hudson gives a single shake of his egg-shaped head. “I’ve got a granddaughter around that age. You and Mr. Judd go call your parents. You hear any gunshots, take cover and don’t make a sound.”

He turns to regard Mr. Epstein, awaiting the geometry teacher’s verbal acceptance–or refusal.

Brook: Brook stares death at the ground for a moment, clenching his fists and making one last point, looking to Undersheriff Bauman and his own deputy for backup.

“Sir, please. If that maniac goes into the tree line, you could all lose him, and your way. These are my forests! Just… bring me along as auxiliary. I can stay in the car with a sidearm and a first aid kit in case he doubles back, I also have emergency first aid training.”

GM: The undersheriff gives an appreciative nod. The young Deputy Lowder, however, keeps her peace.

Hudson: Hudson’s plump features initially downturn into a fierce scowl at Brook’s objection, but the undersheriff’s nod seems to give him pause. “You stay in the car. He doubles back, you’ll hide on the floor as low as you can, and not make a sound. Understood?”

GM: Mr. Epstein places a hand on Brook’s shoulder. “Every angle of the pentagon has its part to play.” He then looks up at the marshal with a military mien. “I am happy to serve, Deputy Schofeld.”

Nelson looks around, clearly unhappy to be the odd man out. But he holds his tongue.

Hudson: Hudson raises a sausage-like finger and makes a brief waving motion vaguely reminiscent of tracing a cross. “All right. You’re a deputy now.”

His wrinkled gaze sweeps back over the two teenagers. “Mr. Judd, the house. Mr. Barnes, the car.” So saying, he hoists himself into the passenger seat of Deputy Lowder’s patrol car. It might tilt a bit as the overweight man gets in. Might.

GM: Deputy Lowder gives her boss a silent look of ‘help me’, as she climbs in to once again act as chauffeur. Harvey just tilts his hat to Tina as he climbs in his truck. Stan Epstein checks his two side-arms, makes sure Nelson walks up to the door and knocks, and climbs in his jeep.

Brook: Brook feels a shudder through him as he wins over the plump old man, thankful for Mr. Bauman’s backup as he lets out the chestful of air he’d pulled in to make himself seem larger. Mother is going to love this little story, having the man who gave her so much trouble give in to her son.

“Yes sir! I’ll only leave when I’m yelled for.”

It’s on. He gives Mr. Epstein an excited grin as the marshal deputizes his teacher and barks his orders, glad to have this small part in the hunt. They have an ace in the hole now.

Brook & Hudson: A Golden Star


10.08.1998, Thursday afternoon

Brook: Following Harvey into his truck, Brook pulls his hair tie out and redoes the ponytail twice as tight, ready not to fool around as he hops up and closes the door behind him. “Thank you for the backup, Mr. Bauman. I didn’t want to miss out on this. I’d feel useless just going home now.”

GM: The undersheriff raises another eyebrow as he turns the key and fires up his truck. “Mister? Brook, there’s running loose, and then there’s fumbling.”

Brook: Brook’s face slowly sinks at hearing that, knowing he’s right. “Sorry, Undersheriff, you’re right. Just a bit overexcited is all. It’s frustrating not getting to help like this very often.”

GM: As the caravan of vehicles head up the road, the local lawman replies, “Brook, ‘overexcited’ is what happens to most high school students after prom. I put my neck out there for you. Don’t make me, or your mom, regret it.” He radios in to the station, then signs off.

Brook: Brook feels the steel in the man’s words, nodding slowly. This is important. Much as he wants to be out there, this is where he needs to start. “Yes, sir. Stay in the car, don’t exchange fire, prepare to give medical aid. You won’t regret it. Will you be leaving me a weapon, or the truck keys?” He frames it as if he doesn’t expect either, looking around the truck for a first aid kit while they drive.

GM: The undersheriff gives the teen a glancing eye from beneath his brim.

Brook: Brook gets the message right away. It’s understandable. With Harvey there to temper him, it’s more clear to him that his is a ‘be there in case of the very worst’ role. His mother’s words about him being a boiling kettle letting its steam bottle up until the cap flies off come to mind. “I’ll honk if I see anyone leave the farmhouse.”

GM: Harvey smiles as he taps the truck’s police radio. “I think our night-time jockey can do a bit better than that.”

Brook: Brook smiles a little right back to him and nods. That’s true, he can keep track of everything. “Done and done, sir. I’ll wait with a first aid kit for your word.”

GM: The undersheriff nods, his grin slipping slightly. “From what I hear, few would shed tears if the fugitive gets… ‘unsuccessful’ first aid. Then again, we don’t know if he’s there.”

“Well, here,” he adds as the three-vehicle caravan rolls up to the farmhouse and shed.

Brook: “I’ll do what I can, Undersheriff. I doubt he’s there either. Probably ran into the tree line.” Once they pull up, he sits up and pulls his belt off, pointing to the window he’d caught the movement. “That was the window I saw the motion in. Do you have a first aid kit in the truck?”

GM: Harvey scans the surroundings–and the identified window in particular. He lets Brook know the location of the first aid kit, checks his loaded pump shotgun, and steps out of the truck. He does not leave the keys.

Brook: He already doesn’t expect the man to leave the keys. Once he has the kit, he grips it tight and undoes his belt. He’s going to keep his head on a swivel the entire time they’re here, eyes on everything. “Don’t hesitate to call me, Undersheriff. Good luck.”

GM: Undersheriff Bauman flicks the edge of his hat in salute, scattering the shadows beneath the western brim. He then goes to join the others.

Hudson: Hudson grunts as he gets the seatbelt on. They always feel a little tight around him. He pulls out a Hershey’s chocolate bar from his coat pocket and takes a crunchy-sounding bite. As the car takes off he conversationally asks his reluctant driver, “Got any kids, Deputy Lowder?”

GM: Hudson catches the young, black-haired woman glancing at Harvey before she answers, “Can’t say I do. I’m still waiting for Mr. Right.”

Hudson: Hudson grunts and takes another bite of his chocolate bar. “I’d say he’ll come along, but he might not.” Another crunchy bite. “Then again, seems you’re undecided whether he’s your boss.” It’s an uncomfortable statement, to say the least. That’s part of why Hudson says it. He wants to see how this woman he’s depending on reacts under pressure.

GM: Tina doesn’t turn her head from the road, but her peripheral vision all but glares at the candy-gorging man. “I think you’ve been pulling on the wrong ears at the local tavern.”

Hudson: Hudson takes another bite, smacking his lips. She’s defensive. Possibly in denial. But she doesn’t lose her head. He’s already starting to assemble a more complete picture of this woman. “Guessing he doesn’t suspect. The man usually doesn’t. Bosses even less.”

GM: The county deputy exhales with something between a grunt and a sigh. “What about you?” she adds in a clearly graceless effort to change the subject. “Do you have kids?”

Hudson: Hudson grunts again, but humors her. “Had a son. He’s dead. His kids live with me and my wife.”

GM: “Sorry to hear,” she says–although it’s not clear for which part she’s most sorry.

Hudson: “Granddaughter thinks I’m the lamest thing since unsliced bread,” he adds as if response to the ‘other’ thing to be sorry for. He then gives a portly shrug and tears a bit more wrapper off his candy bar. “Happens to everyone.” He’s clearly giving Lowder the benefit of the doubt referring to the socially expected thing to be sorry for. “Earlier than I was expecting for him, though.”

Another crunch sounds as more chocolate disappears down the U.S. marshal’s ever-hungry gullet. That’s an uncomfortable statement to respond to, and more to the point Lowder’s response isn’t likely to be very informative, so he steers the subject away. Not directly back to the subject of her crush, but within distance of it.

“So now that we’ve done you and me, how about Boss Right. He got a family of his own? Wife, kids?”

Hudson’s got no interest in involving himself in this small–time town’s small–time drama, but it pays to be aware of the interpersonal dynamics at work among one’s co–workers and subordinates. After all, if Lowder’s in love with Bauman, she could lose her head and do something stupid if Moe hacks him apart. Beyond that, it’s simply informative to know what kind of character she has. How and whether she’s conflicted about wanting a married man. The undersheriff has a wedding ring on his finger, but Hudson doesn’t acknowledge it at this point. He’s more interested in Lowder’s reaction than the facts of the ‘case.’

GM: No native-born daughter of Witiko Falls, Deputy Lowder is nonetheless a native of small-town Bonner’s Ferry and a multi–year resident of the present township. In other words, she regards Hudson as an outsider. As the old abandoned farmhouse and partially demolished outhouse appears, she switches subjects. “There’s the place. What’s your plan?”

Hudson: So, there’s that too. He’s an outsider to this place, even to the deputy who’s herself an outsider. Probably can’t expect much help from the locals. He’ll need cooperation from the sheriff’s department more than usual. All things told, it’s been an informative ‘interview.’

Hudson grunts again as the farmhouse approaches. “Same one I’ll tell the undersheriff and the new Deputy Epstein. I don’t like to repeat things besides habits that I’ll probably need a stomach bypass for someday.” So saying, he devours the rest of his chocolate in a single, ferocious chomp. He smacks his lips and runs his tongue over his teeth, not letting so much as a crumb escape its vigilant attentions.

“But I’ll say this, Deputy Lowder,” the fed finishes as he stuffs the black and silver Hershey’s wrapper into his jacket’s inside pocket. “You’re a pretty girl. And a cop. Beauty and balls. Shouldn’t be too hard for you to find a Mr. Right, boss or otherwise.”

GM: The sheriff’s niece glances at the marshal, as if to see if he’s ribbing her. She must decide the older man is being surprisingly polite, if not nice, though as she replies, “That’s very… kind.” She parks the patrol car and steps out, almost forcing herself not to glance at her cowboy-hatted boss. The war vet similarly parks his jeep, secures his weapons, and steps out.

Hudson: Hudson gives a grunt of acknowledgement. Maybe a bit softer than usual. He glances up as Lowder stops the vehicle and unbuckles his seatbelt, the act of which causes him to grunt again in mild exertion, before he lumbers out of the car. He looks across the assembled officers, regular and otherwise. “All right, boys and girl. Like I’ve said, I’ll give better odds to my losing fifty pounds over Moe still being in that farmhouse, but you know what they say about assuming. It makes an ass out of you. So let’s not be asses.”

The marshal unholsters his sidearm and clicks off the safety. “Plan’s pretty simple. We approach the place, nice and slow, do a clean sweep. Lowder, you’re in charge of opening doors. If we apprehend the fugitive, keep your guns trained while I restrain him. Don’t assume for a minute that he’s any less dangerous if he gives himself up.”

Hudson chews his lip. “I’ve got my orders to bring him in alive, but it’d be a hell of a lot more convenient if he makes us put him down. For me and the poor bastard who’s warden of whatever slammer we send him to. Man’s a Houdini. I’ve brought handcuffs, legcuffs, belly chains, and plan to keep at least two pairs of eyes on him at all times, but I don’t know if it’ll be enough.”

The fat fed grunts again. “Cross that bridge when we get to it. Questions?”

GM: Harvey looks at his deputy and civilian charge, then nods. “Affirmative,” Epstein replies.

Hudson: Hudson waits for Tina to confirm or question, but not for long before he makes a ‘forward’ motion to the other officers and slowly advances towards the farmhouse’s front door. His gun remains trained on its center even as his pudgy, beady eyes scan the area for signs of motion.

GM: The others follow, fanning out like a pack of well-trained, well-armed wolves.

GM: Time stretches out in a long spiral.

As Brook waits, he occasionally sees flashes of different law officers and geometry teacher pass by the windows, their drawn guns catching the setting sun in flashes of golden gun-metal. But no gunshots, shouts, or screams shatter the creeping minutes. As Brook waits and watches, he spots a torn spiderweb fluttering like a ripped flag from the truck’s antenna.

Brook: Brook isn’t a huge believer in signs, but after his conversation with his teacher it feels too much like providence. Having it on the truck? Last thing he wants is to be caught in any kind of web. Quickly turning, he locks the doors on both sides before he settles back on his post, doing a 360 peek through the windows. He feels naked without that sidearm.

GM: A wind rips the web from the antenna, sending it fluttering back down the road. But Brook’s thoughts are soon steered anew as the farmhouse door opens. Deputy Schofeld, the two county police, and Mr. Epstein exit the dilapidated structure, their prior tense vigilance replaced by a grim resolve.

As Deputy Schofeld and Lowder return to the latter’s vehicle and drive off, the undersheriff praises Brook for his patience. “Got a big break in the case, maybe, and it’s all thanks to you, kid. I’ll make sure Mary hears.”

Mr. Epstein, meanwhile, walks up to the truck. “Sheriff Bauman, if you don’t mind, I can take Brook back to school and his vehicle. I already have to go back to pick up some paperwork.”

Harvey gives a sympathetic groan at the mention of paperwork. “I feel your pain, Stan. I really, really do.”

Brook: Brook feels a chill watching that bundle of natural string fly away before he returns to his vigil. Soon though, everyone is out safe and sound. His role in the pentagram is finished, but he still has questions. As soon as the adults finish being sympathetic to adult… things, he breaks in, eyes darting from the undersheriff to the teacher. “Can you tell me what you found? Is anyone hurt?”

GM: The undersheriff turns his attention back to the eager youth and squints in the ruddy evening light. “All of us are fine. As for what we found, the marshal wants to keep that under wraps. His manhunt, his prerogative.” He adds, “Your mother might choose to tell you more, but that’s her prerogative.”

Brook: Brook wilts a little again. There’s a chance his mother might tell him, but there’s a bigger chance she doesn’t want him mixed up with ‘Moe’. “Do you think he was actually here? If maybe he saw us? Someone like that, they might take an intruder over a random victim. Like when bears track people who cross their territory, even when they leave.”

GM: The lawman looks at Mr. Epstein momentarily before turning back to reply to Brook. “I don’t think that’s what we’re dealing with here, or at least, that’s not what the marshal thinks.”

“Let’s get you to your truck,” his math teacher adds. “I’ve already kept you well past the normal time limit for detention.”

Brook: Brook is confused. But it’s nothing he hasn’t experienced before, adults giving him the run around. “He’s right. Thanks for taking me along, Undersheriff. I’m glad I could have been here in case something went south.” Opening the door behind him, he turns back to offer a handshake before he leaves with his teacher.

GM: The former QB, now undersheriff replies with a hearty handshake. “Take care, Brook.” Rolling down his window, he calls out, “Maybe I’ll give you a call sometime and request a song or two.” He then calls out to the Kelpie teacher, “Take care, Stan, and don’t hesitate to use that radio.” The undersheriff of Witiko Falls then drives away, his patrol truck kicking up dust clouds that obscure the ruddy sky.

As the last police officer departs, Mr. Epstein looks up at that ephemerally veiled sky and its setting golden orb. Closing his eyes, he then recites:

Mad Mathesis alone was unconfined,
Too mad for mere material chains to bind,
Now to pure space lifts his ecstatic stare,
Now, running round the circle, finds it square.

Hazel: Attila Awakens


10.08.1998, Thursday evening

Hazel: The last item Hazel puts away is the photograph of her now-named adversary’s servant. She stares long into his face, memorizing the contours of his misshapen features. It’s funny, how her nemesis seemingly hates and envies her for her looks. She remembers all-too well from her adolescence what it’s like to be unattractive. It’s hardly as if her acne clearing up, adopting basic hygiene practices, and shedding a few pounds magically made her life better either. In some respects, it certainly has, but it’s still all-too often that she feels like a visitor from another planet.

As her thoughts meander, so do her hands. Stroking the photograph. Circling it. Tracing a familiar pattern.

She falls in.

GM: The spiral spins. Around and around. Like a cracked tea-cup. She is four years old, sitting by herself in the now-fallow, decrepit amusement park. Spinning. Around and around. She is laughing, bright-eyed with the simple joys and desires of childhood. Spinning. Around and around.

But the spinning quickens. Her flesh begins to press and slide back. Her organs slam against the back of her ribs and spine. She tries to stop, but the giant teacup only spins faster. Around and around. She screams, but the air rips it away till it comes around again, smashing into herself. She shuts her eyes, disoriented and terrified by the vertigo-mad world that runs in a blur. Spinning. Around and around. Her screams intensify, then die as the centrifugal force steals the breath from her lungs.

That’s when she hears the laughter, the touch of scaly, wooden, clawed hands touching hers. Opening her eyes, against the psychotic swirl of colors, she sees that the park and its teacup are not hers alone. A massive, bare-chested man with reptilian skin stares at her with his pitted eyes. He licks his lips. Beside him is a wooden marionette doll, its lacquered formal attire gnawed on by rats and streaked with semen. It opens its wooden mouth like an obscene nutcracker; its cloth rag tongue licks its hawthorn lips. Beside it is a massive bear, hoary and grizzled, its eyes rheumy, and head festooned with a skullcap made from the fleshy tatters of human skin. The bear licks its long tongue over its fanged lips.

Hazel tries to turn away, only to see that all the teacups are full, swarming with leering, lecherous carnie-folk and freak show acts adorned with masks. One by one they lick their lips. And the teacups keep spinning. Around and around. Hazel’s tiny body and mind can stand no more. She vomits. But this time, it is not cotton candy she spews. It is blood. It splatters her face and the tea cup. The Croc, doll, and bear lick their licks.

Again and again.

Around and around.

Kurt: Mind’s Eye


10.08.1998, Thursday afternoon

GM: Kurt awakens, dark blood and cerebrospinal fluid squirting from his cranial catheter. His body is covered and sweat, his fingers tight and cold from pressing against the airstream’s aluminum walls in his sleep. Other fluids stain his loins and adjacent, twisted sheets.

Kurt: Kurt’s eyes focus on the RV’s surroundings in perfect clarity, having fallen asleep with his glasses on, and he spots the newspaper at his side. A dull pain pulses behind his eyes. Nonetheless, he feels oddly… satisfied. And that terrifies him. What the fuck?

He reaches a tentative hand beneath his sheets to check the contents of his sticky underwear. The memory of kissing the Wizard lashes his mind, causing another dull ache in his head. The feeling of wanton lust hadn’t entirely abated. And it all feels strange and horribly confusing while awake. But, at the same time, it feels so right.

“No!” he whispers in fear and self-loathing. “What the fuck is wrong with me? I’m not fucking gay!” Kurt quickly jolts up out of bed, ignoring his throbbing head, and searches for something to clean himself up and hide the evidence of his wet dream. His wet dream of the Wizard. And dead bodies. In a dank, dark well. What the fuck is wrong with me!?

GM: At the sound of Kurt talking to himself, Ridley pokes his head into the RV. “You awa–” he starts to say, when he catches the tell-tale odor of a spent wet dream. “Geez, kid, that’s my mattress and sheets…”

Kurt: Kurt goes instantly beet-red upon Ridley’s arrival, obvious realization, and apparent disappointment. “Sorry.” It’s all he can say.

GM: “Ah hell, ace,” the agent says, stepping back a little. “I did tell you to dream of a hot mama-san’s teenage daughter. Can’t blame you for trying to obey Rule No. 1 in your sleep.”

Kurt: “Yeah.”

GM: “Just… open that back window.”

Kurt: Kurt glances at his feet, struggling to keep eye contact. He does listen to Ridley and open the back window without a moment’s notice, though. “Don’t tell the others about this.” He is horribly embarrassed.

GM: Ridley laughs, but promises nothing as he skips away, whistling ‘Over the Rainbow’.

Kurt: Kurt laughs aloud, which is all he really can do in this situation. He then continues to clean up the evidence and clean himself up. Before anybody else spots him.

GM: Once Kurt’s ‘incident’ is fully resolved, Ridley knocks on the RV.

Kurt: Kurt looks up at Ridley, less embarrassed than the few minutes ago when he was originally found by the older man. “Hi Ridley.” He sounds a lot more cheerful, too. The young man quickly hobbles over to the newspaper from earlier; he planned to question Ridley or whoever about the ‘gas leak’. “Do you know what this is about?” he asks, flipping through the newspaper and trying to find the right story. “It says there’re no casualties.”

GM: Ridley sucks his gums. “Yeah, that’s called grade A white-wash bullshit. Now get out here, it’s time to train some hand-eye coordination.”

Kurt: “I thought as much,” Kurt mentions, nodding his head as he steps awkwardly out of the RV. His cast leg continues to clunk noisily against the floor of the RV and cause the vehicle to shake with each step.

GM: “But,” he says gesturing back to the newspaper, “knowing where they’re shoveling and not shoveling the BS is important.”

Kurt: “It says the gas leak causes hallucinations,” Kurt says. “And that if we’re experiencing any or know anybody that is, there’s a number that you can contact for help.” Kurt asks, “Do you think that’s why I am seeing crazy things? Do you think it’s just the gas leak?”

GM: Ridley shakes his head vigorously. “No, all that is bullshit force-fed to the public to cover up your escape. And the hotline is just to have people call and tattle on anything that look suspicious–which likely means they don’t know how you escaped. Which is good. Very good.”

The black ops agent then brings Kurt to a water spout that is dripping lightly but quickly. He sets down a milk crate and passes the teen a straight razor. “We’ll worry later about nicking off that dirt on your chin. For now, I want you to slice the razor across the spout without the blade getting wet. Understood?”

Kurt: Kurt nods his head, this time looking a lot less certain in his skill. He takes the razor without any more qualms, though.

GM: “Ridley’s Rule No. 13: Slow men die quick. Don’t be slow.”

Kurt: Kurt nods again, this time faster.

GM: Ridley smirks. “Now you work on that while I fix this door.”

Kurt: Kurt smiles back at Ridley, then turns to the water spout, readies the razor, and attempts to practice throwing a blade. It’s not pretty. Kurt may be deft with a pencil, but with a razor, he’s terrible. Nonetheless, he composes himself and keeps working at it. He runs back and forth, recollecting the thrown razor, then aims it once again to complete Ridley’s challenge.

GM: Ridley, meanwhile, strips off his jacket and tie, and rolls up his sleeve as he prepares to do some ‘home’ repair.

Kurt: Suddenly, a victorious cry echoes through the campsite. It’s Kurt. He is already jumping up and down in shock and awe as he has apparently succeeded in the challenge on his second throwing attempt. “Ridley!” he yells. “I did it! I did it on my second try!” He looks absolutely enraptured and beams with pride.

GM: Ridley almost bashes his thumb with surprise. “What?!” He walks over and inspects the blade. He then inspects his recruit. “Do you have any prior combat training? Like take any karat-e as a kid?”

Kurt: “I play varsity basketball,” Kurt admits, rubbing the back of his head in an ‘aw shucks’ manner. “I also used to help my dad around on the farm when I was little.”

GM: “Well, hell,” Ridley says. “How about… you keep practicing that. If you do it ten times before I finish this here door, I’ll grill you another steak.”

Kurt: “Deal!” Kurt grins. He then goes ahead, tasked by Ridley to succeed at least ten times without any hitches, and does so with a determination and vigor quite surprising for someone his size. He doesn’t hit his mark every time, but he still makes good time as he manages to pass Ridley’s test in the space of twenty-one shots. In the end, Kurt needs to take a seat and rest his aching foot, which he’s been hobbling around on more than he would prefer.

GM: “You did it, didn’t you?” Ridley mutters, not quite surprised anymore but still impressed.

Kurt: Kurt nods, looking at how far along Ridley was in fixing the RV door. “Yeah. All done.”

GM: “You little bastard,” the grizzled man says affectionately.

Kurt: Kurt laughs in reply, attempting to help Ridley out if need be.

GM: Ridley sighs as he regards the door, fully banged back into proper shape, but not yet put back on its still unprepared hinges. “Way to follow Rule No. 13, ace.”

Kurt: He gets up from his seat, walking with a limp, and reaches his hand out to proffer some aid.

GM: “God, I hope my daughter digs you.”

Kurt: “Are you already planning how you’re going to introduce me?” he asks with a cheeky smile. He looks at the unhinged door. “I can help you with this part. It’s sort of a two-man job, anyway.” Kurt fixed doors before with his dad when the old man was still walking around.

GM: Ridley considers the offer for a while, then gives up. “Why the hell not.”

Kurt: Kurt cheers in victory once again, glad to finally break Ridley’s resolve in babying the teenager. “You never know!” he says. “I might be a master door-smith for all you know, Ridley!”

GM: Together, the pair finish up the door repair in short order. After that, the older man grills up another juicy steak that tastes as good as sex.

Kurt: “How long until the Wizard gets back?” Kurt asks, chewing his steak with a renewed vigor. He has his broken foot propped up on the milk crate from earlier, finally taking it easy as he rested up. He frowns at mentioning the man, but nevertheless has questions.

GM: “Oh, he’ll be back in a bit, comes and goes,” Ridley says as he rips open an MRE. He looks at the military ration with bald hate and tries to hide his envious glances at Kurt’s steak. But it’s his words that seem to catch in Kurt’s mind. For a moment, he is sure Ridley said “she’ll” be back. Or maybe, that’s just what Kurt wants to hear.

Ridley doesn’t let Kurt ponder on it too long, though, as after their meal, he flips over a milk-crate between the pair, and takes out a deck of cards. “Well, ace, I had hoped to let you squeeze off some rounds, but we’re currently in a no-fire zone on a account of Rule No. 34. So instead, our next training exercise will be Texas hold ‘em. Ridley’s Rule No. 7, otherwise known as the Rogers’ Rule: You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ’em. Being an agent means sussing the odds and tipping them in your favor by calling and making bluffs. There’s times you play tight, then times you play aggressive.”

He doles out some pocket chips stamped with the Beavertail Casino logo, then begins shuffling the deck. After explaining the rules of hold ‘em, Ridley then adds, "Now, since we can’t cash out, here’s how we’ll raise the stakes: the game’s winner gets to ask the loser a question, who will have to give three answers–two of which are lies, but one true." He then winks, deals out the cards, and posts the small blind. As the game proceeds, Ridley starts singing with a warbling voice that couldn’t carry a tune in bucket.

“On a warm summer’s eve,
On a train bound for nowhere,
I met up with the gambler.
We were both too tired to sleep,
So we took turns a-starin’,
Out the window at the darkness.
The boredom overtook us,
And he began to speak:”

“He said, ‘Son, I’ve made a life
Out of readin’ people’s faces,
Knowin’ what the cards were
By the way they held their eyes,
So if you don’t mind me sayin’
I can see you’re out of aces.
For a taste of your whiskey
I’ll give you some advice’.”

“So I handed him my bottle,
And he drank down my last swallow.
Then he bummed a cigarette,
And asked me for a light.
And the night got deathly quiet,
And his face lost all expression.
He said, ‘If you’re gonna play the game, boy
You gotta learn to play it right’.”

“You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em,
Know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away,
And know when to run.
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table.
There’ll be time enough for counting
When the dealings done.”

“Every gambler knows
That the secret to survivin’
Is knowin’ what to throw away,
And knowin’ what to keep.
‘Cause every hand’s a winner,
And every hand’s a loser,
And the best that you can hope for
Is to die in your sleep.”

“And when he finished speakin’,
He turned back toward the window,
Crushed out his cigarette,
And faded off to sleep.
And somewhere in the darkness,
The gambler he broke even.
But in his final words,
I found an ace that I could keep.”

“You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em,
Know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away,
And know when to run.
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table.
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealing’s done.”

Kurt: The song reminds Kurt of when his father used to take him and his sister and him to school. The picture of a red–painted pickup truck fresh is in Kurt’s mind, along with the lyrics to The Gambler, one of his father’s most played and over–worn cassette tapes.

Kurt smiles at Ridley’s warbling tune, sitting back comfortably as he waits for the man to deal. “I have to say, probably better off playing cards than shooting off gun rounds,” he freely admits. “I can be pretty accident-prone, and getting a paper cut from a card would be a lot better than shooting my other foot,” he grins.

GM: “Bluffing me already, eh?” Ridley says, sticking a toothpick in his mouth. “You’re forgetting that I just saw your fast barber hands at work.”

Kurt: “Me? Bluffing?” Kurt’s grin remains.

GM: The game continues, round after round. The pair’s luck, skill, and strategy lead both to win and lose some, but without any decisive swing in either direction. It all comes down to the final hand, right down to the showdown. But Ridley has to chuckle as he lays down his winning hand–which clinches him the pot and the whole game. “Ace-high flush.”

“Not bad, Kurt, not bad.” Shuffling away the deck, he then retrieves all the casino chips, save for a blue one worth $50. His crow’s feet crease as he looks around and then slips the poker chip into Kurt’s hand. “Our little secret.”

Kurt: Kurt laughs, accepting the ‘gift’. “What about Rule No. 7, Ridley?” He speaks in a hushed, secretive tone.

GM: Ridley flicks the toothpick. “There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealing’s done. Now, as for your secret, let’s see here…” He scratches his chin in mock exaggeration. “Well, you’ve already told me about Felicity, and she’s old news anyways. Hmm. How about what’s the craziest thing you’ve seen happen here in Witiko Falls?”

Kurt: Kurt considers his three answers, drumming a finger over one of his knees as he thinks to himself. “First answer: recently when I crashed my car, I saw an elk with what I think was a flayed human body on its antlers before I fell unconscious. Second answer: at the hospital, I saw a little girl on a fat man’s gut whose eyes burst out flies. Third answer: during my nap I had a dream I was visited by someone, or something, and they wanted me more than anything in the world. It was very vivid and caused a wet dream.” Kurt smiles afterwards.

GM: The staring contest goes on for quite some time as Ridley chews on the riddle. The black ops agent quickly eliminates the third option, citing that “teens and wet dreams go together like wet dog and stink.” But he hems and haws a while between the first options. Reasoning out loud, and likely using it to fish for nonverbal tells, Ridley says that the first is most likely to be it because it is more likely to have happened. He goes on to suggest that what Kurt perceived as flayed human skin was probably fraying antler velvet.

But then he reasons that if both were experienced, then the second is ’crazier’–although he chalks it up the incident to being nothing more than a medical-induced hallucination. Eventually, after batting the options back and forth a few times, Ridley picks the second option. His reason is simple. Rapping his skull with his hard knuckles, he says, “What goes on inside here can create mad horrors that make the worst of what’s on the outside look like kittens licking ice cream.”

He then looks at Kurt to verify his conclusions.

Kurt: “You got me figured out,” Kurt answers, impressed by Ridley’s deductive reasoning. Kurt attempted to keep his physical tells to a minimum, but apparently it was all for nothing as his mentor reads him as easily as a penny dreadful.

GM: The older man takes the praise in stride, but notes he had to wrestle “something fierce” with the riddle. “It wasn’t easy to pin, particularly when you pulled that fast one by telling a couple of tall but true tales.” He pops open a beer can. “Speaking of ‘truth’, what do you make of bug-eyed girl?”

Kurt: “Everything went weird after I saw her,” Kurt admits. “But then time didn’t matter, and I realized I wasn’t looking at her anymore–I was looking at my own self.” Kurt adds, “That’s when I had to fight my reflection. Now I don’t have a reflection.” He pauses. “It’s insane.” He shakes his head in disbelief. “What do you reckon?” he asks. “Do you think it means anything?”

GM: Ridley is quiet for a while as he takes a long swig of his beer. Eventually though he answers. “Yep. I reckon it means something. Like don’t take naps while driving.” Kurt never gets to see if Ridley is joking, though, as their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of the Beehive Catering van.

Kurt: Kurt looks up as the catering van arrives on the scene.

GM: Mrs. Kimball is once again driving the dark blue food van. She parks it and waves cheerily at Kurt and Ridley.

‘Chippy’ emerges from the back. She does not wave, cheerily or otherwise, at either of the men. Instead, she walks up, and without looking at Kurt, says to Ridley, “The Wizard gave me orders to poly test the asset. Alone.”

Kurt: Kurt smiles cheerfully at Mrs. Kimball in return when he sees her, and although his expression fades a little upon spotting Chippy exiting the van, he tries his best to put in an effort to get along. “Thanks for making me breakfast earlier, Chippy,” he says in a happy-enough tone. He tries to ignore the (unhappy) prospect of being tested by the FBI agent on his lonesome.

GM: The female agent regards Kurt coolly–which given recent events is a significant improvement. She even nods.

Perhaps spotting this more temperate mien, Ridley nods and stands with a long stretch and yawn. “Okay. I’m tired as balls, anyways. Wake me up when you’re done kissing and telling.”

His partner’s face flashes momentarily with anger, but she swallows it swiftly. She turns to Kurt.

Kurt: Kurt guffaws a little at Ridley’s words; however, he quickly quietens down when Chippy flashes a look of anger. “So,” he drawls, “what kind of test did you have in mind, Chippy?”

GM: “Name recall,” she says, glaring at the teen for using the nickname that led to her smashing his balls only last night.

Kurt: “Oops! Sorry!” Kurt’s apology is genuine as he recalls her ‘prudent correction’ last night. “What kind of test are we doing, Agent Hickory?”

GM: She purses her lip, then motions for him to follow. Unlike Ridley, she does not help him hobble to the back of the van.

Kurt: Kurt frowns at Chip–er, Agent Hickory’s silence. Nonetheless, he follows…

GM: Inside, two kitchen hairs and a table have been set up. Atop the latter is large, metallic briefcase. As Kurt climbs in and takes the seat indicated by the female agent, he sees what he assumes must be a portable polygraph test, complete with dials and tracking paper.

Poly.jpg

The FBI agent then applies several devices to Kurt’s chest, arms, and hands to measure various physiological indices, such as blood pressure, pulse, respiration, and skin conductivity.

“Standard protocol,” the agent says, as Mrs. Kimball closes the van’s back and soon starts driving the vehicle. “We don’t want the unique electromagnetic signature to be detected.” She then sits down and begins the test. It starts with the standard questions. Name. Birth date. Age. Place of residence. Telephone number. It then dives into his personal history, including intimate details about his family, drug use, sexual history, psychiatric symptoms, and more. It is… invasive to say the least, and all the more awkward given the woman’s automaton-esque demeanor as she administers the all too personal questions.

Kurt: Kurt is honest for the most part, but reluctant to be as forthcoming when it comes to Felicity and his sexual history–namely his borderline infidelity in regard to flirting with Morgan, Felicity’s jealousy, and his poor handling of the situation.

GM: Kurt’s previous calm demeanor makes his duplicity all the more telling–and when the cracks start to show, the FBI agent all but pounces on him. She digs in deep, grilling him on excruciatingly embarrassing details. “Have you committed sodomy? Did you cry after your first orgasm? How many times have you committed consensual or nonconsensual incest with your sister? Why did you attempt to use a fake ID to enter the Burning Bush Gentleman’s Club? What is the nature of your relationship with Jack Sarfatti?”

Kurt: “What!?” Kurt yelps in surprise. “I haven’t done any of that stuff!”

GM: The fed jumps up from the table and slams her hand hard on the briefcase. “You’re lying!!” she snarls.

Kurt: “I haven’t cried after orgasm, bum-fucked anybody, used a fake ID, or fucked my sister!” Kurt growls back in agitation. He’s close to losing his cool completely. “I am definitely not lying about any of that, you bitch!” He then adds, “I don’t even know Jack Sarfatti aside from knowing he runs a sleazy strip club and tried to hire my big sister one time!”

GM: Any shred of the agent’s self-composure is torn apart when Kurt calls her a ‘bitch’. Her eyes grow hot like green coals as she pulls out her .45ACP Springfield. “Lying piece of sniveling shit! Who do you work for!!!!”

Kurt: Kurt’s eyes pop out of his head when Agent Hickory pulls out her gun, and he puts his hands up defensively very, very quickly and scrunches his eyes in fear. He rambles off an answer to her question. “I work every day at the Scarecrow Cinema for a man named Mordecai Clay!” Kurt looks like he’s about to shit a brick.

GM: “Smart-mouth snot!” she yells, grabbing Kurt’s arm and pushing it behind his back. “Let’s see how smart that mouth is with some waterboarding!!”

Kurt: “Ouch!” Kurt squeaks as he’s pulled into a grapple, being physically overpowered by the agent. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”

GM: A struggle ensues, and Kurt’s efforts to evade his tormentor force her to holster her gun as she handcuffs his arms together and to a D-ring on the van wall. Kurt’s apologies fall on deaf ears.

Kurt: Kurt whimpers as he’s handcuffed, looking up at Chippy with pleading eyes. He sighs sadly when he notices her uncaring, cold demeanor. “Why do you hate me!?” he yells at her, pitifully. “I don’t get it! You’ve never trusted me! I’ve been through so much shit, and you don’t care!”

GM: She grabs a white towel and massive jug. It’s like she’s prepared for it. Like she wants it.

Kurt: “What the fuck!?” Kurt yells, realizing her intentions. “You were serious about torturing me!?” Something in him snaps. His eyes bulge. The buzzing starts again, getting noisier and noisier.

GM: Chippy stalks toward, unaware of the bizarre neurochemical storm raging in Kurt’s mind. “You’re a lying bastard. If you’re not already working for someone else, then you’ll break! So I’m going to break you first!!!”

Kurt: Kurt’s brain begins to pulsate with an incoming headache. His eyes feel strained, unblinking–and the sensation of tendril-like spikes licking beyond his field of vision is simultaneously empowering and yet oh so alien. Nonetheless, his mind’s eye lashes out in a blind, clumsy flurry. It’s difficult to control and gauge. His eyes begin to roll in the back of his head, and the veins of his neck strain with sheer effort. “Stop!” he yells. “Stop! Stop! Stop!”

GM: The woman’s arm jerks back involuntarily. A spasm breaks out on her face, and she starts to scream as her own synapses begin firing against her will. But the seemingly heartless agent overpowers Kurt’s blind psychoagonstic attack and slams his skull into the van’s wall.

GET OUT OF MY HEAD!!!!”

The blow dashes Kurt’s brain. He hears a loud CRACK. The violence, the terror, the smell of his own blood… it brings back terrible memories.

Kurt: It’s too much. Kurt begins to black out and his mind whirls.

GM: But his mind is no longer even his. Like an iceberg breaking off a glacial shelf, his psyche dissociates from his own conscious will. Dimly he senses the terrible, titanic neural storm build up again and lash out savagely at his aggressor. Something clatters, and another involuntary muscle fires in the agent’s arm. But the power is too raw, too inchoate, too untamed to obey his will–which is not his will. She doesn’t scream this time. She just slams his head again. Harder. Kurt’s broken psyche crawls somewhere deep inside. Back where he can hear… the consciousness-drowning music.

This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend, the end


Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
I’ll never look into your eyes… again


And all the children are insane
All the children are insane…

Brook: Skin Deep


10.08.1998, Thursday evening

GM: A half hour later, Brook is dropped off by his truck in the student parking lot. As Mr. Epstein pulls away with a final “thanks for doing your part,” the sophomore notices his truck has been vandalized.

Sort of. A lined looseleaf has been tucked under a windshield wiper. Unfolded, its bubbly cursive-scrawled note reads:

We waited around for you, but I guess stuff happened. Hope you’re okay.
Yours,
J+D

Underneath the message is a hastily drawn sketch of an alien-piloted spaceship blowing up the world. Daniel’s rough block lettering create a postscript:

Now you owe us 2 trips, Indian-giver!!
PS: Swing by my place before the zombies attack.

Brook: Brook’s half hour in Mr. Epstein’s car is spent with his eyes closed, trying to catch some sleep. His mortal enemy. Not that it lasts too long. He waves his goodbyes to the teacher and drags himself back to his truck, takes the note into the front seat, and reads it as he straps his sidearm back on.

GM: Glancing up from the note, Brook sees that someone has used lipstick to draw a heart on the driver’s side window of his truck. Inside the heart, someone has left the imprint of a red lipstick kiss.

Brook: Brook only notices the lipstick once he closes his door. It gives him a moment of pause. He’s just come back from helping catch a murderer.

Maybe a normal high school life wouldn’t be that bad.

But it doesn’t last too long, he picks up his radio to contact the radio station as he starts the truck to head to Danny’s. “Mad Cub to Red Aspen. Come in, Red Aspen.”

GM: There’s the familiar crackle, then static-y voice of Chet:

“Red Aspen to Mad Cub, this is Skinny Chet. If it sounds like a 10-1, it’s just me eating some scrum–diddly–umptious ice cream from the Britter’s farm.” There’s a pause, followed by Chet’s voice again. “I’ll try to save you some for your midnight shift. 10-13’s calling for a bad T-storm tonight, so you should get a nice light show. Over.”

Brook: Brook sighs at the radio as he continues down the road, looking up at the sky. “10-4. See you soon, Chet.” There isn’t a need to immediately get a report to them, he checked in and got a 10-1. Instead, he continues on to Danny’s house. Just a quick visit before he drives home to sleep.

GM: The ranger’s reply is short and sweet–likely like the supply of Britter ice cream in the man’s bowl. “See you at midnight, Mad Cub. Skinny out.”

Back at Falls High, the thought of food causes Brook’s stomach to grumble in a petulant attempt to convince the growing teen that he’s starving. Fortunately, the drive from school to the reservation isn’t too long. Brook’s beat–up truck rumbles past the manicured pine–shrouded lawns and bucolic river–front businesses of the ‘White Plague’ before he crosses the Green Lady.

Like the colors of a roulette wheel, the reservation is bifurcated with the winners and losers clearly divided. Belonging to the larger Blackfoot Confederacy, the Kainai-dominated scrap of land is best known to outsiders for the thriving Beavertail Casino and those other businesses like the Ghost Elk Lodge that suck from the casino’s lucrative teat. Nestled in the shadow of the Cloven Hoof mountain, this outward-facing section of the Kainai Reserve is bright, busy, and booming. Few save its residents know or see the ‘other’ side.

Once home to roving buffalo herds, the pine- and fir-studded slopes is carved by scrub-brush streams that split and merge with the Green Lady before they spill over the eponymous Falls. But the idyllic scenery is marked by a profound sense of loss. The herds are gone, the echo of their hooves only captured by the clear sky’s thunder. The tribe is a small fraction of its once-feared strength, decimated by its lost way of life, settler diseases and drugs, and the malaise of federal and tribal handouts mixed with generational poverty.

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The Thursday afternoon streets are largely forlorn, broken by paint-chipped barber shops and leather craft stores that have been usurped by the casino’s gift shops and and dead autumn trees.

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Only the ‘Gus Stop’, the reservation’s sole gas station with its general store, seems active with its loitering pre-teens and casino travelers refilling their tanks.

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Brook: Brook’s thoughts on the reservation are split down the middle. They’ve treated him like an outsider since he was found here, before he was ever a ranger cadet. Though this could have something to do with his mother being one. It’s a sore subject. Whatever band and tribe the boy is, it’s lost to the Green Lady, and he never found it with the Blackfoot here. Until he started making friends. Grade school holds fond memories of kids his age willing to look past that. Danny is at the forefront of this list. It humanizes the carnage of a people he sees as needing to pull themselves up. To readjust and not take their lot in complacency. But it’s not something he alone can tackle.

GM: Driving to the Littlebeavers’ home, Brook leaves the reservation’s ‘downtown’ and passes by empty stretches of log cabins with old beaters set on cinder blocks, clothing lines, and rust-red tractors like anachronistic ghosts from the Great Depression. Daniel’s house is less depressing–but only slightly.

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The Littlebeavers’ log cabin has a cluttered porch framed by three white-washed pillars, built over a white cement foundation. Three of Daniel’s four younger siblings meander outside in mix-matched shorts and skirts and autumnal jackets and sweaters.

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As Brook pulls up and stops his truck, the two girls, Koko and Kanti, halt mid-game and stare at the young man like he’s a monster who might eat them if they make any sudden movements. Harold Junior, more commonly known as Harry or Junior, keeps walking but gives his older brother’s best friend a suspicious, aloof glance. Despite knowing all three of the kids since birth, Brook has never been able to win their trust–much less approval.

Brook: Pulling up to the cabin, the kids as always frame the mindset towards him. He’s not given up trying to win them over, but today he’s running out of time. He waves to them as he makes his way up to the front door, keys in in his pocket and revolver still on his chest, and knocks loud and clear.

GM: The unlatched door swings open, revealing a living room that is a little less messy than the porch, but even more cluttered with bric a brac. Nearly the entire wall-space is covered by mismatched picture frames of Daniel’s extended family members throughout the years. The floor is a maze of multi-generational and yard sale quality furniture, rugs, and curios including a porcelain figure of the Virgin Mary, a stuffed bison head, and a WWII plane bomb that allegedly is defused. As always, Daniel’s maternal grandfather, Aaron Black-Rib sits in the midst of the imbroglio, white–haired, big–gutted, and half–asleep as he watches the Price is Right on a static–y rabbit-eared TV. As always, the old man makes no sign of registering Brook’s arrival.

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Outside, Harry and one of the girls start fighting over a half-broken scooter whose handle shaft has been replaced with a pine-branch and duct-tape. Further inside, Wu Tang Clan blasts from Daniel’s room.

Brook: Brook peers into the house, always forgetting how easy the doors comes open. Aaron Black-Rib is–well, the young man has no idea. They don’t speak, not registering the band-less orphan just makes things easier, he guesses. Taking his shoes off respectfully, he carries them into the house and strides quick and quiet, following the sound towards Danny’s room, knocking on his door as well. Who knows what he’s doing with the music on so loud. Not everyone is lucky as he is, having a place to themselves for hours and hours. “Danny, it’s Brook!”

GM: A few second later, the door swings open, and his best friend ushers him inside the bedroom. Forced to share his room with Harry (whom Daniel ‘affectionately’ calls ‘Hairball’), Daniel shoves some dirty clothes off the lower bunk-bed for Brook to sit. The latter then resumes sitting in a re-appropriated kitchen chair beside an old computer monitor displaying Zork III. The mohawk kid takes a swig from a two-liter Pepsi bottle before offering it to Brook. “Great timing, the Flood just wiped out my chances of getting the key.”

Brook: Brook is swept up in the teen current for a moment, sitting on the bottom bunk with a two-liter in his hand without even having thought much about anything. Video games aren’t the young man’s forte, he’s a busy person in most seasons, and in others he doesn’t have a good enough laptop to mess around. Much as some new 3D things Danny has shown him look appealing. “Ah, Danny, I can’t stay long. Shit happened. Like… heavy shit. Like ‘I might have almost met a psycho killer’ heavy.”

GM: Daniel cocks his head and scratches his ear like a flea-bitten dog. “Heavy shit, dude. What happened?”

Brook: Brook goes ahead and tells him about the fabric and fresh shit symbols, even the tagging along bit. “I dunno what they found, but they said it might’v been a break in the case. They’ve told my mom. I can try to get it out of her. Try and keep this quiet, okay? Don’t tell June, it might spook her.”

GM: “Sure, of course… but wow Brooks, that’s wild. So the crazoid escaped from an asylum, is missing a hand, and is into devil worship? Sounds like something from your dreams, dude.” Daniel takes another gulp of cola and adds, “No offense.”

Brook: Brook shrugs, thumbing the handle of his gun. “Welcome to Witiko Falls. I also learned his name. Fucking ‘Moe’.” Though it brings up another point. Something else he has to ask Danny. “So. Did Nelson really apologize to you?”

GM: “Moe?” Daniel starts to ask, but then follows the change in subject. He nods. “Yeah, he did. It was… awkward as jizz on a wedding dress.” He laughs weakly at his own joke, looks at his still bandaged hand, and then continues, “He came up to me right after first period. First, he was asking about you, but I didn’t tell him since that was none of his business. I thought he’d bark back, but he got all weird and red-faced. He was mumbling, so I couldn’t hear what he was saying at first. So I figured he was being a wise-ass under his breath, and so I told him to ‘go to hell and give Hitler a good blowjob when he gets there’.”

“That’s when Nelson really looked like someone tossed his salad hard, man. He got all weird-eyed like he was about to go crying off to the bathroom again. But… he, well, he like apologized. I mean, he did. It was weird. And for the rest of the day, he was all, like, moody and weird.” He then looks at Brook. “Man, I’m dying to know what you have on him. Seriously. I won’t tell anybody.”

Brook: Brook nods hearing about it, taking in the details and feeling both that rush of control again, and the guilt that comes with it. Nelson has completely flipped around towards him and his friends, and it’s because of information he has on the little shit. But so far as telling Danny, it’s too soon.

“Dan, you see his face when we bring this shit up? He went off crying, and nearly did with you, too! I told him to apologize for that shit with June, but I can’t tell you. Yet. I promised him. Plus, if his secret got out? Someone weak like Nelson would just off himself. Besides, maybe I can… change him, you know? Make him stop being such a cunt. When he inevitably drops out of whatever scholarship they give jocks, maybe we’ll have it easier when he comes to be a cop.”

Standing, he comes over to his friend and puts a hand on his shoulder, trying to assure him. “You’re the first one I’ll tell, okay? Till then, it’s between me and fuck-face. Sorry.”

GM: Daniel looks away when Brook mentions Nelson being ‘weak’ enough to ‘off’ himself. After all, only four years have passed since Dan’s mother committed suicide, and his father all-but abandoned ship one bottle at a time. Daniel nods slowly. “Okay, Brooks, I’ll lay off him.”

His eyes linger on the messy contents of his room rather than his friend’s face. But in doing so, he spots his backpack. “Oh yeah,” he says, grabbing and unzipping the bag. “I tried taking notes and getting copies of the homework for most of your classes.” He passes Brook a stack of xeroxed and loose-leaf papers. “It might help with tomorrow. You know, the… meeting and all.” He points to a few scribbled notes. “I jotted down stuff from Epstein, and you know he gave homework like always, and then there’s stuff from LeBaron’s, mostly she lectured about how Rome began.” He points to a far more coherent set of notes with delicate cursive. “And I got this from Veronica for biology.”

“Coach Ross said you have to talk to him about making up the missed work. And, well, I wasn’t going to argue with the man since he looks like he could arm-wrestle a grizzly. And win.” Daniel smiles. His smile then widens and curls. “Sadly you missed a rather lengthy discussion in Health yesterday about how various fruits and vegetables resemble people’s junk. I think Mr. Atwood almost died when his mom told the entire class that her son’s ding-dong is like a crooked carrot. ‘A small one’, I think she added. I was dying inside, so don’t quote me on that one.”

Brook: Brook instantly feels bad for the comment on suicide. It’s not fair. Reservations however, they have this issue. Danny though, he isn’t going anywhere. He has his friend. Getting the handouts though, and the extra notes, it almost breaks the bigger boy’s heart. “Danny, that’s… thanks, man. You’re the best.”

Listening to the rest of everything, the hand on his shoulder turns into a full on hug. Honestly, it’s tough on the young man. Coming here to this place, being reminded he doesn’t have a place among them. How it feels sometimes the town just sees him as some Indian. Even how hard his mother is on him. Having friends like Danny makes it all worth working for. Worth the extra hate for the badge and gun. But after a few moments, he lets his friend go and stands back up, holding back feelings. “That new librarian helped me out on my paper for the principal. She’s fucking brilliant, I aced it like magic. She even filled me in on the rules. I don’t think I’m getting expelled.”

GM: Dan shrugs off the hug with a “no homo” remark, but he a seems happy to hear his best friend’s chances of being expelled are low, or at least lower. “Well, that’s great, man. Especially since I ditched Health class today.” He rifles through his younger brother’s duffel bag searching for snacks, but only comes up with dirty underwear and a stuffed animal yanked from the Lodge’s gift shop that later had its eyes cut out. “Ugh, gross and… wrong.”

He then turns back to his friend. “So, as I was saying, I ditched Health today and used my magic to join June’s class.” He blows on his bandaged hand in self-congratulation, then continues, “Mr. Henderson took his class to see Cindy in the hospital. With Grady and Griffin backing me up to their dad, I convinced Mr. Henderson that I was like Cindy’s cousin but that my dad had his license taken away for too many DUIs.”

He shrugs and takes another swig of the almost empty Cola, burping. “The last part is true of course, and I’m sure I’m somehow related to the Crowshoes seeing how we’re both Blood Tribe. Anyways, so the sap buys it and lets me join the class.” Daniel scoots his chair closer, passes the Cola bottle to his friend, then continues, “But get this. Mr. Henderson let me have some ‘family privacy’, so I got to speak to Cindy alone.”

His next words are almost a whisper nearly drowned out by the blaring hip-hop. “Brooks, she’s like… a prisoner or something.” He shakes his spiky hair. “I asked her about what happened with her mom and the… vacuum. And she got all spooked. Not like crazy sad, man, but just crazy, like she was afraid somebody was listening. She like grabbed me and whispered that she’d tell me everything, but if, and only if, I helped her escape. Escape, man, that’s what she said.”

He looks into Brook’s eyes, as if to say ’I’m not lying’ and adds, “And I swear, Brooks, not five seconds later, a doctor and a pair of burly nurses burst in, kick me out, and stick her with a needle. June swears she saw one of the Spooks in the hospital… and Grady and Griffin both agreed that a black helicopter followed the bus back to school. And you know how rarely those two agree on anything. But Brooks, man, tell me that’s not some messed up shit, man, right?”

He looks down. “After what happened, I didn’t want to tell June, you know, to protect her. She’d spaz.”

Brook: Brook stands and listens, taking in everything that Danny’s saying. After her outburst the other day, Cindy is obviously not well! Obviously grieving. But for her to be forced to stay at the hospital for that reason? Everything sounds fishy, and there’s another hand on his spine pulling him to dig into it. Cindy is a friend, in passing, but a friend. The three of them went to grade school together. It’s wrong.

“Something is definitely up. I dunno, man, after the past few days? Witiko Falls has always been weird as hell, but for Spooks to be in the hospital? It makes sense, with the gas leak. But what gases are odorless and colorless? And the thing with the vacuum? On top of Moe and that shit in Bad Medicine. Fuck. Maybe I should try and visit her tomorrow, too. It’s the weekend.”

Sitting back down, the young man rubs the bridge of his nose in thought. There’s no way to get her out if they have her officially committed. Not without police coming down both their driveways. First thing first, he has to go and see her. Tell the doctors outright he’s there to take her out with friends to help forget her sorrows. Something, at least. “I should get going. Thanks for telling me this, man. I’ll get ahold of you tomorrow, maybe we can go back together.”

GM: Daniel nods, clearly relieved to have shared his ’secret’–and maybe at the prospect of procrastinating whatever rash plan he has in mind. “Okay, yeah, tomorrow.”

Their conversation is interrupted, though, when Dan’s aunt Nikki enters the house, calling all the kids to help set the dinner table.

“Coming,” Daniel shouts back as he rises. He swats Brook. “Come on, help me out and stay for dinner. Aunt Nikki always scores a bunch from the casino.” Having eaten with the Littlebeavers before, Brook well knows that Aunt Nikki’s food is good, even when it’s several–hours–old leftovers from the casino buffet.

Brook: Brook isn’t thinking of breaking Cindy out. Not yet. When you hunt something for relocation, first you have to get a sense of where their head is at. Cindy needs help, but it’s going to be delicate. His train of thought is interrupted though by the little Rebby calling her brother for dinner. It’s a sweet offer for him to stay, but a quick look out the window and he knows he can’t. “Nah, I don’t–I shouldn’t intrude. Your family doesn’t like me much. Besides, I have to get back home and sleep. Running out of time before I can’t anymore, you know?”

GM: “What are you talking about, Aunt Nikki loves you!?” Daniel says. “She’s already seen your truck. If you dip out, she’ll be offended. You know how much she loves feeding family. And dude, if you’re Res, you’re family–even if you weren’t my best friend.” He sticks his head out the door. “Hey, Aunt Nikki, can Brooks eat with us?”

“Of course he can!” she automatically shouts back amid the clatter of forks and plates in the combined kitchen-dining area.

Dan sticks his mohawk-head back in the room and grins. “See?” He then swats Brook again. “After dinner, you can crash in my bed or Hairball’s. Save time by not driving to your house.”

Brook: Fuck, Dan is right. She’ll be offended if Brook just ducks out back into his truck. Maybe crashing here isn’t a bad idea, either. There are condoms in his truck to fix his little sleep problem, at least. “Okay, okay. You win. Just let me fish my radio out of my truck, okay? The tower needs to know what I’m up to. Have to be home by midnight. Now let’s go help.” Brook opens the door the rest of the way, motioning for his friend to go first. Hopefully making things less awkward.

GM: Following his friend, Brook sees Daniel’s aunt in the kitchen, overseeing Kanti, Harry, and Koko setting down plates, cups, and utensils while Dan’s grandfather remains in his stripe-upholstered chair.

Aunt Nikki is an obese woman with grey temple–streaks in her long, straight–black hair. Today, she wears a faded blue T-shirt that reads ENDANGERED SPECIES. She hobbles a bit on her left foot due to the other foot’s amputated toes lost to diabetes.

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“Brook,” she says with another hobble and smile. “How’s your mother?” She gives a shooing motion to her eldest present nephew, tossing him some pot holders with a warning that the meatballs are hot.

Brook: Brook is rarely shy until he comes to a friend’s house to meet their family. Despite growing up with Dan and knowing Aunt Nikki for quite awhile, he still keeps his posture sloped and humble. With his mother being the woman she is, he doesn’t know how to really act in this kind of setting. “She’s good. Busy with the fires, mostly. How can I help?”

GM: Aunt Nikki nods. “She’s a hell of a woman.” Her lips and eyes crinkle as she adds, “Best go help Mr. Mohawk carry in the food. Although if you want to go above and beyond, you could try convincing him to get a haircut.”

Brook: Brook can only nod at her words on his mother, before looking to his friend at the comment. It’s something sacred that the two of them will not broach. How the other wears their hair. “I’ll try, ma’am.”

GM: Aunt Nikki then turns back to the three young children who have stopped working since Brook’s entrance. She swats Kanti with a spoon on her idle hand. “He’s not going to bite,” she says scolding all three of them. As Kanti half-stifles a cry and Harry resumes setting plates, Brook hears Koko mutter, “That’s not what grampa says.” Nikki shushes the young girl and points to the utensils before turning back to their non-familial guest. “Best get going before Rebby tries to pick up something too heavy.”

Brook: Before Brook can start out over Danny’s hair, the scene with the children unfolds, and the reason they dislike him comes into greater focus. The young man doesn’t do too well hiding a face of disappointment, but he swallows it after just a moment. It’s nothing he doesn’t already know. He steps out of the house and to his truck first. Pulling out his radio and clipping it on his belt before he jogs back and helps everyone else out with the food.

GM: He passes Daniel hefting an aluminum tray full of meatballs with marinara sauce. Back at Nikki’s station wagon, Rebecca Littlebeaver stands with a denim skirt, dirty knees, and pastel hoodie. She looks up at Brook through her black bangs. She doesn’t say anything. She just stares.

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Fortunately for Brook, the aluminums tray of seven-layer dip, shepherd’s pie, bannock, and green bean casserole seem less skittish.

Brook: Brook looks back at her for a moment and opens his mouth to say something, but nothing comes to mind. Whatever he says, it can’t change her mind right away. Instead, he just settles on a smile as he picks up as many food trays as he can carry, bringing them back into the house. He’s a tall boy with big arms and a gun, one an important figure in her life does not like, it seems. Hurt as it does, it’s fine.

“Where would you like these, ma’am?” he asks Nikki as he tries to keep close to his friend, Danny. Cling to him to save him from the awkwardness.

GM: Daniel’s aunt tells him where, and several moments later, Brook and the Littlebeavers sit down to eat. If Daniel notices his younger siblings are quiet, he doesn’t seem to mind as he chats with his aunt and best friend. His grandfather eats in his own chair, apart from his kin, watching the Wheel of Fortune.

Brook: Brook wonders if it’s horribly normal for the grandfather to not eat with the family. Him just sitting there is fine for the others, but it somehow feels pointed today.

GM: “Nadie’s funeral is Saturday morning,” Nikki says. “Are you and your mom going, Brook?”

Brook: Hearing Aunt Nikki bring up the funeral tomorrow puts a mix of emotions in the boy’s chest. Realizing they’re making Cindy miss her own mother’s funeral. How fucking dare they. “Cindy is a friend, I don’t want to miss it. Especially if she’s there, I haven’t had the chance to say anything to her about it yet. But with the fires and the U.S. marshal here in the Falls, I don’t know.”

GM: As the conversation returns to the Crowshoes, Daniel becomes noticeably agitated, his knee absentmindedly tapping the table as he stabs a green bean mercilessly.
Brook: Of course Brook notices his friend in distress, and reaches over and to give him a gentle squeeze on the arm. They both know there’s more to it.

GM: Danny’s his aunt tries to change the subject to ask the older boys about school, but as she does Brook catches Koko’s riveted gaze as she stares at Brook’s hands. Aunt Nikki catches the child’s fixated glare and waves a threatening serving spoon in Koko’s direction. “It’s not polite to stare.”

Brook: Brook quickly moves his hands up and inspects them for anything wrong. “What’s up, kiddo? Something wrong with my hands?” he asks, keeping his tone light and a smile on his face.

GM: With a shaky hand of her own, Daniel’s little sister points to Brook’s index and middle finger. “S-same,” she says with a mixture of fear and awe. The others’ heads swing to alternatively face Koko or Brook.

But then Aaron Blackrib speaks. His voice is nearly lost over the static-y voice of Pat Sajack and the spinning gameshow wheel, but Brook and the others all hear him. Whether any understand him is another matter, as the old Kainai says something in the tribe’s native language. Or what Brook assumes is the Blood Tribe’s mother tongue, as the only words he semi-clearly discerns are: “Stsimaki… makoyepuk… kaistosinikyi…” Aaron remains facing the TV, his weathered face lit by the screen’s glow. He then falls back into familiar silence.

As Brook inspects his hands, he notices that his index finger is longer than his ring finger–on both hands. It’s not something he’s ever really considered–except for last week in Health class when Mrs. Atwood had described how differential prenatal exposure to testosterone causes the ratio of ring and index fingers to vary, with longer index to ring finger ratios being indicative of lower IQ and attractiveness and smaller engorged genitals.

Of course, he fell asleep during the class, but he was awoken by Veronica Pleats holding his hand and snickering. Daniel filled him in after class, much to his chagrin. Back in the Littlebeavers’ cramped dinning room.

Brook: Brook looks over his hands and what do you know, it’s true! Though he’s always assumed it was just something off to the wayside for people until Danny filled him in on that one snooze class. It’s been a pretty embarrassing day. What makes it worse, however, is the old man’s words. Brook has willfully chosen in his life not to learn the language, and it just adds a tinge of heat to his flushed face.

GM: Daniel laughs when he spots his friend checking out the ratio of his fingers. “So much for riding horses.” He then proudly flashes his own hand, with its prominently larger ring finger. Koko, however, remains far from amused–particularly once Aunt Nikki swats her for ‘starting trouble’ and sends the young girl to her room. She waves a serving spoon at the others as if to ask if anyone else wants to start trouble. The three other young children indicate otherwise as they look down and resume eating in silence.

Brook: After Koko leaves the table and Danny’s had his laugh, Brook has to wonder. Why is she worried about things like how smart he is and how big his junk is? But as things settle down, he looks to his friend and gives him a knowing smirk. They’ve had this talk, the day he talked about what they taught in that class. Brook isn’t incredibly bright, but those other things? No one beats Brook at gay chicken.

Now that things are a bit more calm, he turns to Aunt Nikki in hopes of some clarification. Hoping her niece isn’t worried about his performance in bed. “What was that about? Koko seemed pretty freaked out about it, despite what it’s supposed to mean. And… I’ve never heard Mr. Blackrib talk before.”

GM: Aunt Nikki looks peeved by the whole situation, glancing at Brook, her nephews and nieces, and her father. Stealing a wary sideways glance at the latter, she mumbles half under her breath in reply, “Just superstitions.”

Daniel shrugs. “Grandfather talks. It’s usually to himself and some nonsense in old people speech.”

Nikki’s mouth gapes at her nephew’s disrespect. “Danny!”

“What? It’s true,” the mohawked kid replies.

His aunt’s knuckles tighten around the serving spoon she hasn’t set down. She seems to consider whether or not she should beat some respect into the young man. However, after glancing at Brook, she settles upon discretion. She throws up her hands, glances at the clock, and rises unsteadily. “I have to get back to the casino for my next shift.” She fixes Daniel with a look that brooks no dissent and clearly lets her nephew know that they will finish the ‘conversation’ later. “Make sure you clean this all up–and make sure you save some food for your brother Elijah.” She gives a farewell nod and forced smile to Brook, hobbles over to her father and gives him a kiss and a gentle admonishment not to watch too much TV.

Daniel’s response is to shove more food onto his plate as his aunt walks out the front door and drives away in her station wagon.

Brook: Brook’s response is more confusion. Just superstitions, and then his grandfather talking to himself in the reservation’s mother tongue. Makes the young man think twice about leaning the language, but he knows he can always go and tell his mother the words. He repeats them in his head a few times as Aunt Nikki gets up and leaves. Of course he thanks her and wishes her a safe drive, before she’s out the door and gone. With everything that’s happened, along with reinforced doubts about his potency as a man, it’s time to head home. Without her here, it’s too awkward anyway. Brook bites into a few more meatballs before he stands up.

“I’m going to get going, too, Danny. It’s been a long day. We got a long one tomorrow, too. I don’t wanna be tired for the Crowshoe memorial.”

GM: His friend looks up. “What? I thought you were crashing here? I thought we could do some biology or math together, or you know, goof off or shoot cans. The funeral’s not for two more days.”

Brook: Brook shrinks a little at his friend’s insistence, thinking back on what his mother said. It’s going to be a busy weekend. But he’s neglected his friend this season already, with so much work. He has the radio like he was asked, too. Slowly, he sits right back down and pops a another meatball into his mouth.

“I guess I could take my friend’s pleading to heart. Seeing as I might not have time this weekend. Reminds me, I gotta get ahold of Leanne as well, work on that civilization project.”

GM: Daniel beams. “Okay, you go crash. Me and Hairball will clean up and wake you in case you sleep in too late.”

His younger brother scowls. “Don’t call me that,” he mumbles.

“Okay, Juuunior,” Daniel replies teasingly, but he otherwise leaves his brother alone as he hikes a thumb to his best friend. “I trust you don’t need to be tucked in and kissed goodnight? Or should I call Horse-Face?”

Brook: Brook shoots a look to Danny for his insult and points a fork at him. “Do we gotta have another talk about this, Mohawk? Your relationship with June is strained enough.” Of course it’s a tease, he grins a little and clasps a hand on his friend’s shoulder as he eats one last meatball and stands back up. “I’ll go and pass out then. Wake me up whenever. Just remember, gotta be back at the tower by midnight.”

GM: Daniel scarfs down some bean dip. “I’ll make sure Koko and Rebby don’t murder you in your sleep. No promises about Kanti.” The nine-year-old girl shoots her brother a look, but doesn’t break her seeming vow of silence in front of Brook. Meanwhile, the boys’ bedroom and sleep await.

Brook: Brook grins a little to Danny and then smiles to the nine-year-old. “Don’t worry about it. I trust her. I’ll see you soon.” Really, it’s Mr. Blackrib he doesn’t trust. Despite being told he only mutters to himself, the children have been listening. But it’s fine.

Tired and fed, the young man makes his preparations. Sidearm is unloaded, bullets in his back pocket. The radio by Danny’s pillow so he can hear it better. Finally, he eases himself into his friend’s bed, back facing the door as he lets himself spiral into the first real sleep he’ll have today.

Hazel: Attila Awakens


10.08.1998, Thursday evening

GM: Hazel awakens to a ringing telephone. She is on the ground, her chair still spinning. Around and around.

Hazel: She groans, hauls herself to her feet, and picks up the phone.

GM: It’s her mother’s voice.

Hazel: “Hi, Mom, I presume you’re off work?”

GM: “I am, dear. I called the hospital, and they told me visiting hours end at 8 pm.”

Hazel: “The time would seem to be nigh, then.”

GM: “Have you eaten?”

Hazel: “I’m still at work, but just finished up. I last did at lunch.”

GM: “Did you want to grab something on the way there or back?”

Hazel: “I’m okay, but thanks for asking. I’ve still got a lot of your pizza from the night before last in the fridge.” Hazel normally wouldn’t turn down a meal with her mother, but time is of the essence tonight.

GM: “Very well, dear.”

Hazel: “See you in a few, Mom. Meet you by the flag pole?”

GM: “That will be fine, Hazel. I’ll be there within fifteen minutes.”

Hazel: Hazel wishes her mother a final goodbye and hangs up. Several outstanding matters remain as she calls her uncle’s office.

GM: The chair weakly finishes its last inertia-driven rotation. Her uncle’s office line rings repeatedly before being transferred to an answering machine.

Hazel: He’s likely left work, unsurprisingly. She tries his home line. If he’s away, she leaves Pi’s number as per their understanding. If he’s present to pick up, she informs him she will be leaving work for the hospital within fifteen minutes, and that she may be best reached by her cellphone.

That done, Hazel digs out her predecessor’s journal and the SVCD recording of ROSEWATER’s actions at the car crash. Who knows what could happen tonight. And she has… a hunch, that she shouldn’t keep either item on her person. There are too many potential scenarios where they could be separated from her, and she doesn’t want them falling into anyone else’s hands. So she ventures into the darkest and most forgotten recesses of the Chimera, removes a thick book’s jacket cover, presses the SVCD flat against its back, then slips the cover back on and hides the tome among its neighbors. The diary is sandwiched between two larger books on a far away but equally obscure shelf.

Really, Hazel thinks, there’s no better place to hide a book than a library.

That done, she packs her things, closes up the Chimera (she clocked out when school ended), and heads outside to wait by the flagpole.

GM: Although true sunset is still several few minutes away, the rearing Bitterroot obscures the sun’s sinking eye, casting the western sky in red flames that lick at the weeping blue. A cold wind snaps at the flag pole, rippling the shadowed fabric and causing the line to clang loudly against the metal.

Hazel: More time. More time. If she’d had more time, Hazel would take the battle to her foe, during the day. But with only an hour of daylight remaining and her mother on the way, she admits it’s too late to change plans.

Besides. This thing started in her bedroom at the Sweeney house. For good or ill, it will end there too.

GM: A vagrant disturbs her dark musings. Disheveled and drunk, he stumbles toward Hazel, and takes off his hat as if about to ask for some money. However, the dirty man takes one close look at Hazel and starts yelling, clawing at the air in front of his eyes as he runs away. “I don’t want to see that?! I don’t want to SEE THAT?! I DON’T WANT TO, I DON’T WANT TO SEE THAT!!!”

Hazel: Hazel immediately clenches the pepper spray on her key ring. She doesn’t like talking to strangers at the best of times. And raving lunatics–_homeless lunatics_–even less.

GM: The drunken man runs away–but not out of any rational fear of pepper spray. Something far more irrational gnaws at his mind. As his demented yelling echoes away into the irregular, metallic heart-beat of the flagpole’s clanging counts out the time slipping away as the sun sinks. Eventually though, Hazel’s mother arrives in her import SUV.

Hazel: She all-too gratefully makes her way up to the car and climbs in. “Hi, Mom. How was work today?” she asks as she buckles on her seatbelt. Realizing that she’s got her keyring still out, she slips it back in her purse.

GM: “Work went very well, dear. Thank you for asking. How about yours?”

Hazel: Well, I found out the identity of the vampire who wants to murder, curse, or both me, so I can’t say it was uneventful. “It was… busy. I had a class every period, and a student who’d received ISS.”

GM: “The does sound busy.” Her mother glances at her. “And how are you feeling?” Outside, houses rush by as the sky darkens.

Hazel: Hazel doesn’t hide her sigh. “Tired, Mom. It’s been a long day. It was… a lot of people to deal with.” It’s true, dealing with all those classes was tiring. But far graver–and even more tiring–concerns presently weigh upon her mind.

GM: Her mother squeezes Hazel’s hand lightly. “Hazel, I’m proud of you working so very hard, and I hope it won’t be too taxing to deal with a few more people tonight, your old mom included.”

Hazel: Hazel manages a smile back. “My mom is neither old nor taxing to deal with. I enjoy spending time with her.” Well, okay. Sometimes she’s taxing. But not most of the time, and not now.

GM: “Well, that’s not what my colleagues at Nostrum say,” she quips. “But that is very sweet and nice to hear you say, dear.”

Hazel: The smile is still tired, but turns a touch amused. “It is well for one’s work colleagues to consider one difficult to deal with. I believe at least several students would describe me the same way. One poor fool made the mistake of not addressing me by ‘Ms.’ on my first day.”

GM: “Oh? And did you put him in red-hot iron shoes?” she laughs.

Hazel: “Fear of force can be as effective a deterrent as force itself,” Hazel rejoinds. “He proved quite willing to rectify his error after I spotted the marijuana on his person and phoned the sheriff’s department.”

GM: “Ah, I see,” her mother says, not disagreeing with the strategy as much as the implicit interaction with Harvey. “Oh, check the glove compartment,” she then adds, clearly changing the subject.

Hazel: Hazel does so at her mother’s behest.

GM: Beyond the normal items one expects in a glove box, there is a half-opened envelope.

Hazel: Hazel opens it all the way, mildly surprised. Her heart skips a beat for a single, anxiety-ridden moment. Leo wouldn’t have–and couldn’t have, in any case–disclosed her letter. She berates herself for even thinking so. She can’t help it. She’s on edge.

GM: “I presume it’s yours,” Lydia explains. “I found it today in the back of the car when I went to put something in the trunk after lunch. It’s not mine, and it’s unmarked, so I assumed it was yours and probably fell when we were putting the bike in last night. I started to open it,” she says somewhat sheepishly, “but I stopped because you are an adult and deserve your privacy.”

Hazel: Hazel’s heart skips another beat. The tenor of the missives left for her these days… well, she doubts it’s anything good. Still, it’s like a shot. Best get it over with. And for all the bad news she suspects it to contain… she is curious.

“Thanks, Mom. You might have cracked the door to see who was knocking, but you didn’t let the devil in.”

It’d probably be prudent to wait until her mom’s not around. In case there’s anything which gives her an awful scare, or simply necessitates lying to her mother again. But she’s irritable, impatient, and wants to get it over with, now. No more unpleasant surprises lurking in the back of her head. Maybe she’ll luck out and it’s another obscene note from a student. Funny how she now thinks one of those would be ‘lucky’ when they made her so furious this afternoon.

GM: Inside the envelope is a single sheet of white copy paper. Upon it is the following computer-printed message. There is no name to which the letter is addressed. Instead, it starts abruptly:

You must be more discrete. Time is running out. If you wish to know more, go to the Shop-Plus, enter Aisle 6, and tape a newspaper clipped ‘E’ behind the price tag display for fluoride rinse. DO NOT USE COLOR.
Discretely,
A Concerned Citizen


Hazel: No kidding on her indiscretion. She caused a huge scene in the diner. She’s reading this letter in front of her mom. And she’s not even going to get started on the things she’s been doing in the library. Her exchanges with Brook most of all included.

GM: “So?” her mom asks.

Hazel: Hazel nearly replies, It’s from Michael, but the timing doesn’t add up. She’s not had her bike since yesterday and Michael couldn’t have left a note during their diner meeting. Wouldn’t that be a conveniently true answer, assuming he’s affiliated with these people after all. Either way, she’s due to make a trip out to Shop-Plus anyways. She’s got to steal–er, buy groceries at some point.

Hazel crumples the note up and sticks it in her purse–where the “Super Retard” drawing from earlier also rests. Yes. That’s perfect. In fact, she is starting to feel a little pissed off. That circumstances haven’t let her be discrete, because she’s being stalked by a fucking vampire. Because of her panic attacks. Because of Brook trying to talk to her about the paranormal, so many times. Because of what a waste of oxygen Fleischer is–and those students Hazel will exact retribution upon.

“An obscenity,” Haze growls. “One that I can and will handle.”

She withdraws the sketch of the crude stick figure with dark long hair, glasses, and cape with the caption: Super-Retard is so super she fucks herself!

“I have a handwriting sample,” Hazel angrily declares. “I have a pretty good guess what class and period this note is from. I’m going to make this student’s life hell.”

GM: Lydia peeks over–not long enough to read its entirety but long enough to glean its gist, particularly with Hazel’s context. Her face heats with anger.

Hazel: “Perhaps I should break into the school’s computer network and change a few grades to F’s. I could do it, untraced.”

GM: “Morons. They probably already have F’s. I’d shove their dicks in an electric socket, since it seems to be their primary mode of thinking.”

Hazel: “True. Perhaps I will simply plant illegal contraband in their lockers.”

GM: Her mother’s face contorts a bit. “They have no right. No right at all. But…” she says, sighing, “breaking the law doesn’t seem appropriate either. Isn’t the principal strict?”

Hazel: Hazel feels bad in that moment. This wasn’t something she needed to drag her mother into. All it did was upset Lydia. She could have just waited to read the note at home, but her curiosity got the better of her. The consequences might be minor enough, but it’s a telling lesson on what impatience usually gets.

“Yes. That is true,” Hazel grants. “She still offers corporal punishment to students as an alternative to detention, which remains legal under Idaho state law.”

GM: Lydia snorts. “Well, I think seeing their asses kicked by a nun might settle the score.”

Hazel: “They can accept that, or detention at my hands during after-school hours. Specifically, the hours when their clubs and any other extracurricular activities are taking place. Unlike my older colleagues, I am not so foolish as to believe that in-school suspension is an effective deterrent against undesirable student behaviors.”

GM: “Well, I certainly hope you catch the gutless neanderthals. I don’t like people treating you badly.”

Hazel: “I’m a capable enough detective to investigate crime scenes right alongside the police. I can catch an adolescent neanderthal missing their vital organs. The fact they would even deliver this note to me anonymously speaks as to how greatly they fear the consequences for being apprehended.”

GM: Her mother nods, mollified if still a bit miffed. “Well, I do have great respect for your investigative abilities. Speaking of which, as soon as your license arrives, I have a large, lucrative case for you.”

Hazel: Hazel really does feel bad now. Her mom didn’t need to see that. She’s got enough stress in her life. Hazel is confident she can handle the student, and she’ll certainly tell her mom all about how she served them up their just desserts, but it would’ve been even better not to broach this topic around Lydia at all.

You’re getting emotional, Hazel. Careless. Remain objective.

“Excellent,” she smiles. “Is there anything you can tell me now, or are the particulars best left undiscussed until I have signed an NDA?”

GM: “The latter, I’m afraid, particularly because I went to bat for you. Keystone was pressuring me to hire a team of professional inquiry agents with national-level experience.”

Hazel: “That’s okay, Mom. It’ll keep. And I do appreciate the batting, given the fact that I technically lack any professional qualifications at present.”

GM: “Well… I may have nudged the truth a little when I said I was already negotiating with a local agent who has years of professional experience working in this town and collaborating with local law enforcement.”

Hazel: Hazel laughs a bit. “I suppose it’s a benevolent fib. Years of experience remain years of experience, whether I possessed a license at the time or not.”

GM: “Yes, my sentiments exactly,” she says, smiling.

Hazel: “Although speaking of experience with this town, the student I had suspended with me was the Native one I mentioned earlier. After spending the day together I believe we hit off fairly well. Which is relevant to you insofar as his mother is the chief park ranger. I’m not certain what her level of connections are to the reservation, but is that what you were looking for? He actually mentioned that she has been overworked and would benefit from enlisting my services on a recent case.”

GM: “Oh, yes, there is another case where that might be very, very helpful.”

Hazel: “Excellent. Being a librarian would seem to have its perks.”

GM: “So once you get your license, you can let me know which and how many cases you can take.”

Hazel: Hazel gives a little laugh. “Yes, my services would seem to be rather in demand before I even have my license.”

GM: “They are. We have to hire someone regardless, but I would rather that money and prestige go to you than to a stranger.”

Hazel: “Yes, I’m certain the experience will look good on a resume.” Hazel’s mainly saying that for her mom’s benefit right now. It’s something she’s probably glad to hear, that Hazel is moving forward. On the other hand, is it cruel to say on the night she could die?

GM: “As will the commission in your account,” her mother adds cheerily.

Hazel: Hazel isn’t sure, but it seems like it could make her mom happy now, and that has to count for something. “Abundantly. There is a reason private investigators have made so large a niche for themselves when we have police. And it isn’t merely getting to wear fedoras. Or at least, not solely.”

GM: “Fedoras? Oh, my, I hope you at least buy a chic trench coat.”

Hazel: Hazel laughs. “I’m kidding, I don’t resemble Humphrey Boggart closely enough to pull off that look. One should play to one’s strengths.”

GM: “And against the weaknesses’ of one’s opponents,” Lydia says with a light laugh of her own. “Speaking of opponents, though, I wager I can definitely hold off my rivals’ entreaties to hire an established, outside inquiry agency, at least till Monday. For the big case, that is.”

Hazel: Hazel nods. “I haven’t checked my mailbox today, and there’s also tomorrow morning. I’m sure it’ll have arrived by then. I already know it’s been approved.”

GM: “The weekend is on our side in that regard, I think. Although the town’s post office is atrociously incompetent.”

Hazel: “I suppose that’s fate’s way of making up for some of the excess employee competence at the high school.” Hazel subtly tries to remind her mom the town isn’t all bad, though it’s probably a lost cause. “Anyways, I’d gather up that NDA and any other relevant documentation pertaining to the case tomorrow. Maybe if all goes well we’ll be able to celebrate me getting my license that same evening.”

I’ll certainly be celebrating if I make it through tonight alive.

GM: “That sounds wonderful, dear!” Lydia says, clearly enjoying the prospect of Hazel snagging the contract and the opportunity to ‘celebrate’. As the conversation slips into discussing vague, non-committal plans for the coming weekend, the mother and daughter pull into the visitor parking lot of Mount Pelion General Hospital.

Hazel: Hazel suppresses a grimace. She’s still not completely comfortable doing this. But as she reasoned out, her temporary discomfort is a minor thing against Lance’s coma. And this could well be the last night she can visit him.

She unbuckles her seatbelt and slides out of the car. Also, that alleged gas leak? I don’t think I’d mind looking this place over.

GM: Mount Pelion General Hospital is a relatively large, new, and well-appointed hospital serving the township of Witiko Falls since the late ‘80s. Financed by wealthy corporate donors, MPGH has facilities for long-term inpatients, outpatients, surgery, and emergency care. Its ER in particular is large and well-equipped with a modern trauma center, but the ER never seem to have enough doctors, nurses, and other staff to keep it running smoothly. Instead, as its name and logo (a symbol of a golden apple inside a black mountain) suggest, it’s a site of tragedy and chaos. The rural township and outskirts generate waves of casualties every night–drunks bloody from bar brawls, vehicular crash victims, drug overdoses, victims of rabid animal attacks, hunting accidents, battered wives and children, and just about every other unfortunate story one can imagine. In the bruise-purpling sky, the light from the ER’s sign feels like a sword hanging over the heads of all who enter. EMERGENCY, it reads in bleeding red letters flanked by vain, apotropaic crosses.

hospital.jpg

Hazel: Hazel looks up at the dully glowing letters. “It’s good of Nostrum to have helped fund this place. And people say the company gives nothing back to the local community.”

GM: Lydia nods, then whispers as she hooks Hazel’s arm in hers, “Although what people don’t know is that the majority of donations came from Keystone’s representatives.”

Hazel: There’s the slightest flinch as her mom unexpectedly links arms, but Hazel’s tension fades after a moment. The physical contact isn’t so bad when it’s from one of her parents. “Another front to the corporate war,” is her low reply as they approach the entrance.

GM: As the pair walk around to the side non-emergency entrance, they notice a white-haired man dressed in golfing shorts and a polo shirt shuffling in a daze underneath the ER entrance. A security guard tries to placate the obviously disoriented man. Lydia stops and raises a hand to reduce the red-glare from the gate’s sign. She then turns to Hazel and pats her arm. “You go on, dear. Check in at the outpatient desk, and I’ll meet you at or right outside Lance’s room.” She then hustles over to the elderly man, her heels clicking on the asphalt. “Nigel?” she calls out, prompting the older man to turn around.

“Mildred, darling?” he calls.

“No, Nigel, it’s Lydia,” her mother calls back. “What are you doing here–is everything okay?” she asks.

Hazel: Hazel pauses at her mother’s request, not liking the thought of asking strangers for directions. Still, she accedes with an, “All right, Mom,” until she hears the ensuing exchange with ‘Nigel.’ He’s well-dressed and seems pretty out of it. What’s the story here?

GM: The old man identified as Nigel stares weakly at Lydia before saying, “There was an accident at the plant. Segawa.”

Lydia looks around, then puts an arm around the shorter man. “Let’s get you inside, Nigel. Your skin’s nearly purple.” Before she leaves the entrance, she shoots Hazel a look to ‘go on’. Lydia then motions for the security guard to follow her and the old man inside. The guard tries to protest, but is brow-beaten by the corporate lawyer until he complies.

Hazel: Well, there’s no good reason she can’t just ask her mom what happened at the plant later. No getting out of it, she’ll have to talk to the person at the front desk. Hazel reluctantly heads in.

GM: Immediately inside the outpatient entrance is a large, if bizarre, statue of a centaur-like being. Masculine and clothed in a white doctor’s coat and stethoscope, its front legs are human despite the rest of its lower portions being equine. The unusual figure carries branch a across its clipboard, from which dangle three rabbit-feet amulets.

Hazel: Science meets superstition.

GM: Security guards mill about, looking edgy and nervous. They eye Hazel suspiciously.

Hazel: Hazel isn’t sure how to react to their gaze. She’s white, female, well-dressed, and physically unimposing. Not the sort of person who causes trouble. She makes her way up to the front desk and awkwardly states her business to the receptionist, never enjoying talking to strangers, then offers her thanks and makes her way to Lance’s room.

GM: The front desk-woman proves less hostile than the guards. When asked, she promptly provides Lance’s room numbers and directions to his ward. The route is ridden with several obnoxious detours as certain areas are cordoned off due to “Routine Cleaning Inspections.” Consequently, Hazel is redirected past several wards.

Hazel: Of course. The gas leak.

GM: The surgery ward is bright and clean, with haughty surgeons backed up by tight teams of anesthesiologists and nurses, but here the sick and wounded seem like products on an assembly line to be fixed and then shunted out of the door, and people start to resemble problems or puzzles to be solved rather than human beings.

The hospital’s staff areas are dingy and smoky in spite of the signs admonishing anyone from smoking there, and conversations away from patients’ ears are cynical rants about how it is stupidity that fills half the ER every night, or how one doctor is a bitch and another is a half-competent butcher who covers up his mistakes with an Ivy League education and a round of squash with the administrator.

Hazel: The stench of cigarette smoke immediately prompts Hazel to close her mouth and pinch her fingers over her nose. It’s a loathsome habit. And against the hospital’s alleged rules.

She’s still not sure what to make of the hospital staff’s complaints. Many of them, she’s certain, are justified, but something seems vaguely socially inappropriate about them. Or maybe just inappropriate, even if it is socially acceptable to say them here.

GM: In contrast, the dual ward for intensive care and non-critical outpatients is antiseptic, quiet, and a little too dimly lit despite the white severity of the austere walls, floors, and ceiling. The empty corridors look like prison blocks for the sick rather than a place of care and recuperation.

hospital_interior.jpg

Hazel: Hazel has to admit it, she was just saying Nostrum gave back to Witiko Falls to be nice to her mom. Yes, it’s better for the town to have a real hospital than relying on country doctors, but altruism isn’t what motivates the corporate executives who greedily tore apart her mother in the vision she had last night. But a functioning hospital remains a functioning hospital. What else is there to be done?

GM: No hospital staff help or impede Hazel’s progress as she searches for Lance’s room. Eventually, she locates the nameless, numbered door.

Hazel: That, at least, is how she prefers things. On the way over, she tears up from the note from… well, she’s honestly not sure who, and drops the pieces in separate trash bins. There’s no reason to keep it around after she’s memorized its instructions. Once she finds Lance’s room, she glances through the window by ingrained habit to see if anyone else is present.

GM: Through the small vertical pane of glass, Hazel spots what she assumes are Lance’s long legs tucked into a hospital bed. The rest of his body is hidden by a blue, half-drawn curtain that bisects the room. The bed nearest to the room is empty, and no one else appears to be inside. Three doors down, a patient moans. “Drugs… the pain… please…”

Alerted by the pleas, a tired nurse strolls down the hall. She puts on a smile when she sees Hazel.

Hazel: It takes a second, but she manages one back. That’s the expected thing to do. She is better qualified to assist you than I am, Hazel silently thinks in response to the pained patient, then opens the door to her former boyfriend’s room.

GM: As Hazel enters, she can hear the nurse’s voice several rooms down. “Now, Donna, I can’t give you any more morphine. If it hurts so bad, maybe you should leave Harold so he doesn’t do this again.”

Inside Lance’s room, medical equipment fills the room with mechanical beeps and ticks. Apart from the standard array of ICU paraphernalia, the room is full of get-well cards and vases of flowers in various states of wilting. Most of the latter are from students, and at least one stuffed cow has been gifted to the young Agricultural Science teacher. Despite such decorations, the white-painted walls are peeling, and the smell of sweat, saline, and rubbing alcohol lingers in the air.

Lance is… it’s hard to describe what Lance looks like. Due to the pervasive injuries and bandages, it’s frankly hard to verify that it is Lance. As if to alleviate that issue, a set of pictures have been placed on his bed-tray.

The first is a picture of Lance himself. It’s from last year, with Lance and his 4-H high school club members standing in front of a planked barn, holding up their ribbons. In his early twenties, he is lanky and tall, towering over most of his students. His dirty-blond hair has receded a little, Hazel notes, and in the picture he wears a beard heavy around his jaw line, but with his neck smooth-shaved. He is dressed in business casual attire, save for his cowboy boots. He is smiling, but his eyes look puffy and wrinkled from stress and worry he did not possess as a teenager.

Lance.jpg

The second photo is of Lance’s father, Broderick McDermott. The picture shows Broderick, or Brody as he is known by locals, holding a family-raised black steer with a backdrop of their family farm with the mountains on the distant horizon. The image captures one of Brody’s rare smiles, highlighting the resemblances between father and son.

Broderick.jpg

The third picture is of a young woman who Hazel recognizes as Lance’s mother, who died giving birth to her one and only son. That son, however, now lays in a hospital bed beside the three photos, fighting for his life. Comatose, Lance’s bandaged and cast–confined body lays still except for the slow rise and fall of his chest. His breath sounds shallow. His eyes are closed, their lids swollen and badly bruised. With the overhead lights dimmed, Lance’s features are lit by the pulsing glow of his heart monitor.

heart_monitor.jpg

Hazel: As she so often does, Hazel struggles for words. But the struggle is more frantic than usual right now. Her eyes dart between the get-well cards and trinity of photos, as if searching for some remedy, some magical cure to… everything, that the hospital has been unable to provide.

Her mouth opens and closes several times as she swallows the lump in her throat. It’s hard to see. It’s–it’s the, the things in the air, the things that hospitals, that… she raises a hand as if to dab at her eyes, but it only gets halfway up before she sets it back down.

“I-I’m sorry,” she finally chokes out. I’m sorry. It’s… it’s applicable enough. It covers a multitude of subjects between her and Lance.

GM: The monitor provides her only reply. Beep….. beep….. beep…

Hazel: “I’m…” Hazel rubs her hands over her wet cheeks, taking a deep breath. Her hands linger there for a moment as she concentrates on the damp sensation. “My aunt. My aunt, Winnie, says that. Coma patients can hear what’s occurring around them. On occasion.” There’s another long pause as she runs her hands over her face. She peers at the room through the gaps in her fingers, observing the interplay of the hospital’s harsh fluorescent lights against the black, seemingly orange-tinged pillars blocking her vision. Pillars. They’re like pillars. Against my face.

GM: In the slits between those pillars, Hazel’s wet eyes falls upon Lance’s hand. Multiple fingers are splinted and monitors are attached to his index finger, but for a moment, she swears she sees it.

Movement.

A tap. No three taps. Its significance pulls at her conflicted heart as memories flood back. Three taps. It was his secret code. Just to her. Only and always for her. Three taps. Against a homeroom desk. Against a kitchen table-top. Against the curve of her breast, right above her own warm-beating heart. Three taps. I. Love. You.

He always waited for the day she would tap back. He’s still waiting.

Hazel: No. That’s. That’s. That’s…

Hazel’s hands fall from her eyes.

He moved.

He’s aware. He loves her. It’s impossible. It’s like something out of Winnie’s soap operas. She’s not in any state to consider the evidence objectively. Not when…

She saw it with her own eyes! Her mouth works, even more dumbly. She becomes conscious of something wet pattering over her feet. She never replied to those taps. It was just… it was too big a commitment. Too big a jump to say she loved someone. She wasn’t even sure if she did love him or not. She’s always been bad with emotions. Yes, she loves her parents, but even she knows that’s a very different type of love. She didn’t want to figure out what it was with Lance. He was her boyfriend. She was girlfriend, and they were together. That was enough. Why did he need to bring love into it? Hazel can’t even admit to herself that she’s friends with Layne, despite the fact she so clearly is. Love was just… is just…

And right now? After they’ve broken up? That’s… that’s inopportune! Poorly-timed! Illogical! Two people should not bring love into the equation until they have been together for at least several years, ascertained that their personalities and interests have a great deal in common, and have a clear vision of the future they desire with one another. Planned. Logical.

But the world doesn’t operate on logic. The world is as it simply is. Hazel’s parents have told her that before. She even knows they’re right on some level. You can’t plan and catalog and analyze and… a whole host of verbs, everything in life. There are moments you’ve got to leap before you look. Three taps. Four answering ones. Hazel’s face still feels damp. Her heart loudly thumps and her head feels funny. Is she having another panic attack…?

GM: Lance’s heart beats strong and hard. Three times. I. Love. You.

Hazel: Her mouth dumbly works again. The lump she swallows down her throat feels like a cannonball. She doesn’t even know the answer in her heart until it passes her tear-stained lips:

But I don’t.

She can hear her sobs now. “L-Lance, I’m-I’m sorry… I… I want you to get… I don’t want you in a coma… n-no one deserves tha… and you don’t… but I don’t.” She frantically runs a hand across her nose before managing, “Don’t… don’t ever lie to someone… about loving them… so I’m not going to.”

“I’m… I’m sorry, you’ve got… a great many… admirable qualities, but… we’re not… we weren’t… and this is just… so sudden, it’s… this isn’t Hollywood, Lance! I’m not going to just… love someone, after…” Another wave of bitter tears causes her to clutch the hospital bed’s rail. “I’m… I’m sorry… I… value the time we had, together… I want you to… get better, and I… hope you find… some… one, but I just… I just don’t! I’m sorry!”

She could have tapped back, four times. She could have listened to the foul, black thought from the same Edenic serpent that whispered how she should sabotage her mother’s work. Writings by Crowley, Parsons, and Randolph all say that love between magicians is the key to unlocking true theurgy. Hazel could have fucked Lance in the hospital bed, right here, her limp vegetable, unaware of anything that was happening save his love for her. She could have stolen that love. Drawn forth its strength and bottled it up against her nemesis.

But she’d have been just as much a leech, just as much a bloodsucker, as he himself is. She doesn’t love Lance. But she won’t… she won’t exploit him, hurt him, not like that. She feels filthy having the thought at all. But she’s always seen things in black and white. There’s two courses–two real courses she could’ve taken here. She could’ve loved him back. Or she could’ve shown he meant nothing to her, taken that love, and twisted it towards her own ends. Instead she did things halfway.

Half. Half is nowhere.

Nowhere. Nothing. No one. She has no one. And maybe she never will. As the great void opens in her heart she turns and flees the room, sobbing, away from Lance and all the loves and might–have–beens it contains.

GM: She runs straight into her mother. Standing in the threshold of the door for how long Hazel knows not, Lydia puts her arms around her daughter, tears streaking her own face. “Hazel…”

Hazel: A new wave of tears flows as Hazel breaks down in her mother’s embrace. She’s past the point of being startled by the physical contact. “H-he… he said he loved me…! I’m… I’m sorry… but I don’t!

GM: Her mother’s tears fall hot on Hazel’s hair as she cries back. “I know… I-I know…”

Hazel: “Why… why are you… he’s n…” Further words are lost in the furious maelstrom of emotions.

GM: Still tightly embracing her daughter, Lydia sucks in fluttering breaths to try to calm her own tempest. “It’s going… to, you’re going to… be okay… move on… we’re going to be okay…” Another tear slips down her check and lands on Hazel’s. “I’m here… and I-I love you.”

Hazel: Another low sob sounds from Hazel. At any other moment, she might observe what an extraordinary record it is for her to have three hugs within a 48-hour span. “I-I love you too, Mo… let’s just… let’s just go…”

GM: “Okay, dear,” her mom says, kissing her daughter’s head and shepherding her out of the room and down the hall. “We’re going.” She fishes out tissues from her purse, passing one to Hazel and keeping one for herself. Wiping her eyes so as not to terribly smear her makeup, Lydia adds, “I’m so proud of you, dear. You did the right thing. The hard thing, but the right thing.” She closes her eyes and forces back a sniffle.

Hazel: Hazel blows her nose. “I… I did half… half is… nowhere…” A familiar caution tugs at her mind as she sticks the soiled tissue inside one of her purse’s plastic bags. “I… if I really meant, that… that I didn’t… why am I…” The physical evidence speaks for itself as she honks into another tissue.

GM: Her mother sucks in another breath, slowly exhales, then answers as best she can. “Because you’re human. You feel. You have a heart.” Stepping into an otherwise empty elevator, Lydia tells her daughter, “You care–of course you still care for him. You were together for a long time, during special periods of your life. You might even still have feelings for him. Shared history and maybe more. But… you… you don’t love him. Not like… he wants….. not like… he needs….. n-not l–like… he d–deserves…” She breaks down into tears, turning away from Hazel as she sobs anew, her tissue rubbing furiously at her face.

Hazel: “M–mom, are…” And then she realizes. Not as early as others might have, but she still does. It’s not just Harvey who sees something of himself in Hazel and Lance.

There’s little to be said. Hazel hugs her mom again.

GM: Her mother accepts–no, seizes–the hug. The two cry and embrace, and sense of time and space seem to disappear in that ephemeral, raw moment. Pain, love, doubt, loss, sorrow.

Hazel: Hazel dimly registers herself as saying maybe they should wait a bit before Lydia starts driving.

GM: Their exit from the hospital resembles something of the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme, as both women try to put themselves and the other back together again. But the cracks show. Only time will tell if their catharsis is truly healing.

And time may be one thing that Hazel lacks.

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