Witiko Falls: Disillusion

Case File Archives

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Prologue
• Sunday, September 20th—Monday, September 21st, 1998

Monday night, 21 September 1998, AM*

Chapter 1 Sig1.5.jpg
• Tuesday, October 7th, 1998 AM
Agent Bauman (Subject Z—E1RP—81.23.01) sleep-study inception: Phase 3. Self-exposure to lachrymatory agent and two episodes of unmedicated psychasthenia (F41.0). The first terminates in syncope, the second tapers via tactile-exposure induced oxytocin release and parasympathetic activation via diaphragmatic respiration. Subject’s initial investigations precipitate persecutory delusions related to paranormal phenomenon (see case file: REDACTED). Paternal care unit transports subject to local Sturm und Drang epicenter for imminent indoctrination and compensated servitude.

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• Tuesday, October 7th, 1998 AM
Agent Bauman (Subject Z—E1RP—81.23.01) postmortem re-socialization with Agent Tuttle (Subject G—F1LZ—77.16.02). Preliminary examination detects (1) affective-neurocognitive pathology consistent with bilateral medial temporal lobotomy and chronic Lazarenus effectus (see Project REDACTED) and (2) hyper-attachment mirroring adult-onset disinhibited attachment disorder (F94.2) with organic etiology. One unmedicated episode of psychasthenia (F41.0) due to exposure to erythrocytes and sodium hypochlorite. Subject evinces operant conditioning techniques with nepotic extortion and verbalized self delusions of eschatological proportions (rule-out F22); preliminary results include confiscation of tetrahydrocannabinol and adolescent socio-behavioral subjugation.

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• Tuesday, October 7th, 1998 AM-PM
Agent Bauman (Subject Z—E1RP—81.23.01) cellular contact with maternal care unit terminates due to low decibel-milliwatts and/or RF interference. Re-socialization with former literary pedagogue. Manifests libriform (see Operation Cryptobranchus; cf. case file: REDACTED) and psychosexual obsessive-delusional symptomatology with poor insight (rule-out F20, F22—23, & F42). Averted vehicular accident results in medicated episode of psychasthenia (F41.0); current dosage of Affreux appears efficacious. Citation of town ordinance R—14—1952 violation; deescalation via affective dissociation with Agent Worwood (see case file: REDACTED).

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• Tuesday, October 7th, 1998 PM
Agent Bauman (Subject Z—E1RP—81.23.01) paternal attachment solidified through joint aerobics and digestion. Evidence of telecommunication phenomenon (see Project REDACTED).
• Wednesday, October 8th, 1998 AM
Agent Bauman (Subject Z—E1RP—81.23.01) investigation of vehicular crash involving Agent Crawford (Subject P—M1AE-92.08.03). Engagement with ROSEWATER results in unmedicated episode of neurocardiogenic pre-syncope. Co-investigates with paternal care unit incident regarding Agent McDermott (Subject G—M1AD—76.02.05) in critical condition (W21.11XA).
Agent Crawford (Subject P—M1AE—92.08.03) somnolence-induced vehicular crash; complications occur (see Operation REDACTED; cf. Project REDACTED; cf. case file: REDACTED) including neurocardiogenic syncope and hypovolemic shock; provisional diagnosis of 825.20 (rule-out 824) and 850.4.

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• Wednesday, October 8th, 1998 AM
Agent Barnes (Subject L—M12—87.26.04) diurnal narcolepsy without cataplexy (347.00; cf. Division REDACTED) results in detention (see WFHS Policy 5.8). Hormonal-sociotypical interactions with Agent Pohlman (Subject G—F00—84.13.07) and Agent Littlebeaver (Subject K—M00—82.13.10). Extemporaneous assessment by pedagoguery; results indicate inadequate hippocampal functioning (cf. 347.00). Errant projectile results in puncture wound with foreign body of left hand, sequela (S61.442S) to Agent Byers (Subject K—F01—83.30.10) and neurocardiogenic syncope by Agent LeBaron (rule out F40.23; cf. case file REDACTED). First aid and pre-coital socialization commences. Agent Gorczak (Subject P—FAE—78.20.08; cf. Project REDACTED) levies in-school suspension (see WFHS Policy 5.9).
Agent Bauman (Subject Z—E1RP—81.23.01) employment IP investigation proves inconclusive (cf. Project REDACTED; Agent REDACTED). Reality testing deteriorates with additional libriform and non-libriform psychotic episode (rule-out F20, F22, F29, & F42; see Operation Cryptobranchus; cf. case file: REDACTED). Satellite-faciliatted contact with maternal figure. PSA disseminates (987.8; see Operation Goldsmith Imago; cf. case file: P—M1AE—92.08.03).
Agent Crawford (Subject P—M1AE—92.08.03) medical examination at MPGH conducted by Agent REDACTED. Results confirm diagnosis of 825.20 and 850.4. Cranial catheter operational. Dosage titration regimen fails (cf. serum REDACTED; cf. Project REDACTED; cf. Operation REDACTED; cf. Division REDACTED). Unspecified psychosis not due to a substance or known physiological conditions (F29); hallucinations, unspecified (R44.3; cf. serum REDACTED; cf. Project REDACTED; cf. Operation REDACTED; cf. Division REDACTED; see case file: REDACTED). Operation Goldsmith Imago commences. Results inconclusive.

Chapter 6
• Wednesday, October 8th, 1998 AM-PM
Agent Barnes (Subject L—M12—87.26.04) discovers ticket stub (see case file: REDACTED) and experiences episode diurnal narcolepsy without cataplexy (347.00; cf. Division REDACTED) followed by diurnal emission (608.89).
Agent Bauman (Subject Z—E1RP—81.23.01) meets with REDACTED (cf. case file: C.R; cf Operation REDACTED; cf Project REDACTED); attempts to abort didaction regarding Agent Tuttle (Subject G—F1LZ—77.16.02) and symptomatology related to Lazarenus effectus (see Project REDACTED). Satellite-faciliated contact made with “Lindsay” (no file available). Further co-investigation with paternal care unit and Agent Ostergaard (E—M2AD—80.25.12) regarding Agent McDermott and emeritus Agent Moore (see case file: REDACTED). Manifests psychopathy (rule out F60.2) with Agent Worwood. Residential intrusion detected; surveillance reviewed.
Agent Crawford (Subject P—M1AE—92.08.03) remains out of contact and unresponsive to treatment; preliminary results indicate adverse reaction to regimen (cf. serum REDACTED; cf. Project REDACTED; cf. Operation REDACTED; cf. Division REDACTED). Degenerative signs of unspecified psychosis not due to a substance or known physiological conditions (F29); hallucinations, unspecified (R44.3; cf. serum REDACTED; cf. Project REDACTED; cf. Operation REDACTED; cf. Division REDACTED; see case file: REDACTED). Further testing needed.

Chapter 7
• Wednesday, October 8th, 1998 PM
Agent Barnes (Subject L—M12—87.26.04) further hormonal—digestional—sociotypical interactions with Agent Pohlman (Subject G—F00—84.13.07) and Agent Littlebeaver (Subject K—M00—82.13.10), including discussion of Agent Crowshoe (Subject S—F1HV—84.23.06). Altercation with Agent Judd (Subject K—M00—82.01.11; cf. F66). Subject reports to NPS Red Aspen (cf. Project REDACTED), interacts with maternal care unit, and receives assignment to Rockwell’s Fall (see case file: REDACTED).
Agent Bauman (Subject Z—E1RP—81.23.01) administers dosage of lachrymatory aerosol to “Dusty” (cf. case file: PENDING; rule out F60.2). Introduction to “Michael”.

Chapter 8
• Wednesday, October 8th, 1998 PM
Agent Barnes (Subject L—M12—87.26.04)
Agent Bauman (Subject Z—E1RP—81.23.01) manifests insecure-resistant attachment (Type C) with maternal care unit; related unmedicated episode of psychasthenia (F41.0).
Agent Crawford (Subject P—M1AE—92.08.03)

Chapter 9
• Wednesday, October 8th, 1998 PM
Agent Barnes (Subject L—M12—87.26.04)
Agent Bauman (Subject Z—E1RP—81.23.01) manifests acute psychogenic paranoid psychosis (F23; rule out F29) and abnormal uterine and vaginal bleeding, unspecified (F93.9). Psychiatric commitment, voluntary or otherwise, under review.
Agent Crawford (Subject P—M1AE—92.08.03)

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13
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Story Two, Chapter One

Brook, Hudson: A Golden Star


Friday morning, 10 October 1998

GM: The night’s storm has passed, but the morning gusts stir and stipple the hospital’s half-flooded parking lot. The same chilly-wet wind slaps at Hudson and Brook as the former escorts the latter to Hodges’ truck. Showered and freshly clothed, Brook watches as another gust catches the dark-green tarp tied to the truck-bed, causing it to twist and like the Green Lady.
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Hudson: Hudson is neither showered nor freshly clothed. He gets the door for the handcuffed Brook.

Brook: Brook still feels the film over the world, but with the time and the shower he’s been gifted, the cause becomes clear. Filth. He’s coated with more than just the filth that the marshals can see, but he can feel it coating him. The tarp’s rippling form only drives home what he knows. He needs the box under his bed, and he needs one last visit to the Green Lady before the fall gets too cold, and she sleeps under the ice.

The open door has the teen step into the truck, resting his head back and waiting for the portly marshal to join him.

Hudson: Brook does not have to wait very long at all. Hudson’s clothes are still wet and coated in mud, even if he all-too thankfully accepted Max’s dry coat to replace his ruined one for the drive over. The fat marshal sees Brook inside, then gets right out of the cold himself.

GM: Far above, a stray goose, likely divided from its flock in the storm, flies south for refuge from the coming winter. It honks plaintively.

Hudson: He turns on the ignition and pulls out of the hospital’s well-lit parking lot. The police station is ten or fifteen minutes away.

Brook: “So. Mind if I ask you a question?”

Hudson: “We don’t have too much else we can do, Mr. Barnes.”

Brook: “You’re leaving Witiko Falls for good after this, right?”

Hudson: “Once the doctors tell us Moe is in good enough shape for the trip back to Boise. But yes, I’ll be gone for good.”

Brook: “How far along have the tourist nightmares gone?”

Hudson: Hudson raises an eyebrow that’s still caked with a smidgen of dried mud. He sighs and rubs at it. He washed his hands and face back in the hospital, but couldn’t get everything. “The ‘tourist nightmares’, Mr. Barnes?”

Brook: “Every visitor up here experiences nightmares,” he states, very matter of fact. “Just like why you can’t bring dogs up here. Different question, then. Did Nelson have any police protection when you let him leave that day? Mr. Epstein is a known gun carrier, my home is the most secure place in the Falls, but Nelson was the one of three who was taken.”

Hudson: “Mr. Barnes, it’s very late. Late enough that it’s rolled around to being early, in fact,” the mustachioed marshal says tiredly. “Though I suppose the one upshot to that is the rest I’ve gotten here being equally terrible.”

Brook: Brook side-eyes the lawman, and shakes his head. “If you survive what comes after the nightmares, you’ll be fine.” Easing into his seat, he looks out the window for the sun. His body doesn’t ache as much as the older man’s, not by far. The trip there was easy, the fight short and vicious, but not terrible. “If you ask Mr. Epstein, I even told him it’d be us. And if you talk to him today, thank him for me. His math class was the only reason I was able to find Moe.”

Hudson: “I don’t think there’s any reason for me to burden him with that guilt, Mr. Barnes.” Hudson looks out over the rising sun. It’s still cold and wet outside, but the light and truck’s heat is a vast improvement over his previous mode of transportation. “Finding you and Moe together was something we’d prepared for, but hoped to God wouldn’t be the case. You either had the worst luck in the world to run into him, or some idea of where he was.”

Brook: Brook wants to say a lot, wants to credit the forest for guiding him once again, and his memories of the forsaken little valley. But he spots the sun too, and the thick form of the young man beside him starts to almost deflate before the lawman’s eyes.

“It wasn’t ‘some’ idea, no. There was a pattern, and I found it using the obvious clues he left behind. The composite sketch of his shit-pentagram, the fires, everything fit neatly together in the golden ratio. The radio tower was inoperable, so I had to…”

Those are the boy’s last words, the sun signals his downfall as he passes out in his seat.

Hudson: “Hmm-hmm. And what about your truck radio? Or the tower’s generator?” Hudson chuckles. “Sounds like I’m out of a job, though. You’d get along with my granddaughter. She can name a hundred reasons she should be wearing the marshal’s badge instead of me.”

GM: Brook’s narcoleptic snores are the marshal’s only reply.

Hudson: “That includes my being too fat,” the marshal continues conversationally. “She thinks the marshals should have a maximum weight, or at least BMI requirement. I switched from smokes to candy bars so her dad wouldn’t inhale any secondhand, when he was a kid. Isn’t that some life.” Hudson’s words are amused, although it’s a weary and even bitter-tinged brand of it.

“But that’s kids her age. They always know better.” Hudson lets Brook sleep for now—god knows he could use the rest—and looks ahead towards his drive.

GM: Ahead, the mountains are dark with rain and receding shadows. Nestled between those peaks, Witiko Falls remains largely asleep, barely even stirring.

Brook: Brook’s body and mind fight over rather to sleep or panic each time they both realize that his wrists are bound, every so often his arms flexing as they remember the sense of dread as Mo wraps his arms in tape, but relax as his mind reminds them of the look of horror on his face when he ripped out of them. It continues all the way to the station, and the only other conscious thought that pulls itself out of his brain is the lament that he can’t look out over the mountains after a thunderstorm.

GM: Indeed, the only ‘passenger’ Hudson crosses on the roads before reaching Witiko Falls’ police station is a tumbling plastic bag from Shop-Plus.

Hudson: It’s a much too early—or late—hour for anyone to be up and about. Hudson has to admit he likes it, though. It feels natural. In tune with how things should be. Everyone being in bed, rather than a city’s never-ending pattern of frantic activity. That’s small towns. Hell, you could probably leave your car and house unlocked in a place like this. Hudson parks the truck, gets out, and gently shakes Brook awake. “All right, we’re here. You can get your full day’s worth inside.”

Brook: Hudson’s finger barely brushes Brook before his eyes shoot open, looking the man over like he’s wondering why he’s so tall and white, before his memory catches up with him and he grumbles, sliding out of the truck and shaking his legs out and looking up at the building. He’s quiet for the moment.

GM: Brook awaits to his destination and seeming place of temporary residence for the unforeseen future. 131 Cackleberry Lane. Police Station of Witiko Falls. Although Hudson’s been here before, he is still struck by the building, which altogether looks more like a small-town bed–and–breakfast than a jailhouse.

True, POLICE STATION is brightly emblazoned above its two white-washed doors, but those words and the usual menace or at least power they carry is literally overshadowed by a fragrant mass of flowers grown over the building’s large porch, complete with a sitting chair and whittling stick.

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Hudson: Not that it likely ever sees many inmates. Probably just drunks sleeping it off.

GM: Both men note the night’s storm has beaten up the late-blooming blossoms rather badly. It’s hard to tell whether Brook or the flowers are more badly bruised.

Hudson: This is small towns, all right, but the floral wreath had made even Hudson pause at the sight at first. Well, he’s seen stranger—in this town. He leads Brook inside.

Brook: Brook feels better than those flowers do, at least, he frowns lightly at their state, but still heads inside with Hudson. “You know, I have one more question, Marshal.”

Hudson: “Shoot, Mr. Barnes,” the marshal deadpans.

Brook: “Was this necessary?”

Hudson: Hudson gives a tired half-smile. “If my answer was no, would you be here?”

Brook: “Maybe. I don’t get why this had to happen, though. You couldn’t find him, and I did. And it ended up saving Nelson’s life.”

Hudson: Hudson nods. “Since you’ve asked, that I can explain.”

Brook: Brook sighs and looks out over the town. “Please do.”

Hudson: “This is happening, in short, because you interfered with my team’s investigation when you weren’t supposed to. We found evidence—planted, deliberately false evidence, as it now turns out—in the farmhouse that Moses’ next target was Mrs. Britter. We assigned her a full guard. When Red Aspen didn’t respond to our communications, and I took two of my people to find why, we discovered bike tracks that indicated you’d driven off into the night, for god only knows what reason. Where you might run into Moses, who was oddly late in showing up for Mrs. Britter, and my little man was starting to tell me might never show. I made the terrible decision to split my team, half staying with Mrs. Britter, half searching for you, knowing that I might be condemning someone to die for want of enough men. That was your first count of obstructing an officer.”

“You’re lucky I was able to track your path to Moses, and had a friend who lent me some motorbikes that marshals aren’t normally issued. When I got to Scratch’s Corral, I saw you and Moses engaged in an altercation. He might have killed you. He might have killed Mr. Judd. He might have done god only knows what, because you deliberately sought him out in order to put away the bad guy and play hero. That was the second count of obstruction. Then, in the middle of a hostage negotiation, you attacked Moses. That was the third count of obstruction. Against all odds, no one died, and the bad guy got put away. But here’s my question for you, Mr. Barnes.” Hudson looks Brook in his eyes and asks slowly and deliberately:

“What if you were wrong?”

“What if you were wrong about where to find Moses, he really went after Mrs. Britter, and someone died because her guards were at half strength? What if when you first found Moses, he killed Mr. Judd? What if my team’s trigger fingers were too slow, and he fatally stabbed you or Mr. Judd? Or what if it wasn’t my team’s trigger fingers that were slow, but our powers of deduction, or the speed of our bikes, and we are arrived too late to stop Moses from gutting you or Mr. Judd? What if I never listened to my hunch that Moses might not show at the Britter farm, and stayed there with my team? There are a thousand one other ‘what ifs’ a DA who picked over this case could identify, I’m sure.”

“I’m sure your natural refutation to that is ‘but I was right and everything worked out’. But things didn’t work out. Not for everyone.” Hudson slowly shakes his egg-shaped head. “Oh, I’m grateful how things turned out, let there be no question of that. If you offered me the chance to go back in time, re-do events, and play those dice again, I’d turn you down. We were incredibly lucky that no one died that night. Incredibly lucky. But Moses still lost his arm. He’s going to go through the rest of his life unable to eat, drink, open a door, even take a dump, without help from a nurse. I’m responsible for that, Mr. Barnes. I made that call. I had my team shoot off his arm. Most of the responsibility is mine, but some of it is yours—for attacking Moses when you did, and forcing the events that led to me making a terrible split decision: shoot a man, or let him stab two boys. And the equally terrible repercussions of that decision, for Moses, are not a responsibility you should have to bear, in even the slightest amount. You are fifteen years old and still a minor.”

“I’m not fifteen. I’m an adult, a marshal, and one close to retirement at that. I knew that something like that, or much worse, could happen under my watch when I accepted this assignment. It was my cross to bear if someone died or got hurt because of a decision I made. Because that’s the thing, Mr. Barnes. If you want to get credit for being a hero, you have to be prepared to accept the consequences if you’re just a screw-up. And when the stakes are men’s lives, those consequences are terrible. Terrible enough that we don’t ever want them visited upon a child.”

“You interfered with my team, three times—four if we count not sharing Moses’ location with us, not that anyone ever expected you to discover that—and hijacked some major decisions out of my hands. Those weren’t your calls to make. You weren’t qualified to do our job, as the fact you didn’t think to tell us what you’d found over your truck radio makes all-too apparent. If we let every fifteen-year-old who believed he was in the right interfere with a federal manhunt to the extent that you did, most of those manhunts would end in disasters. Most of the time, fifteen-year-olds are wrong.”

“That’s why, Mr. Barnes, even in being 100% right, you can still be 100% wrong. You’ll find that’s life. The comforting shades of black and white will blur and intermix as you grow older, until they grow so gray, you’ll find that sometimes, right is wrong.”

Brook: Brook listens intently, leaning against the building as he thinks it all over, chewing it with a concerned face.

“I don’t want to be a hero, Marshal. I wanted no one to die. I wouldn’t have left that tower if I wasn’t 90% sure. One, that I couldn’t contact you. Generators can’t be used to run radio equipment during a storm, and the tower was fried. I didn’t even think about my truck. Two; using my maps and the locations of the fires, with the symbol he was so fond of, and the history, geography, and difficulty of access, I was certain he was in Scratch’s Corral. Third; I didn’t have the time to hesitate. Witching hour is 3 AM, I had to get there before I found a corpse and not a teacher or classmate. I… I’ll admit my mind was more occupied on getting there too late than getting there with backup. I brought flare guns to signal my location, but should have set one off before I left. I’m sorry you got bad information from Moses, and I’m sorry what I put you through in running off, but I was too sure someone would die if I didn’t go.”

“As for me grabbing him, I was expecting the three trained officers there to rush forward and grapple him, not open fire. Even one person to grab Nelson, that’s still three people to grapple Moses, when I was able to overpower him before you came. The only reason he grabbed Nelson was because he realized he couldn’t beat me. I don’t blame you for your choice. It turned out. But I accept that responsibility for him losing his arm. He doesn’t have a lick of pity after telling me how he lost the first one, though.”

“As for you saying it’d be my ‘natural refutation’, it’s not. You haven’t been here long enough to realize what Witiko Falls is. That Mary is my adoptive mother, that my friends are all missing family, that I have a friend in the hospital right now losing her mind over a murdered mother, that the stain in my school library is from a woman shot dead, why police dogs aren’t allowed here, or why my mother doesn’t want any of you into the forest. Everything turning out okay doesn’t happen often, if ever. We see things we can’t unsee, each step towards the hole where great root was taken leads us to learn the things that crawl up from it are wrong. So of course I realize there are ‘what ifs’. What if I’m not fast enough, what if a mountain lion is waiting in the trees, what if today is the day I trip and feel teeth on the back of my neck. I live with my own what ifs, Marshal. This isn’t my first brush with death. That said-”

There’s a small break in his expression, the boy scans the parking lot with a look of sadness, or maybe loss. A father, let alone a grandfather, can tell the boy is choking a lot back.

“It was close. Really close. Before you showed up, Nelson was in a worse place than he was before I showed up. I probably would have killed Moses, or he probably would have killed me. I had… I thought I had a bargaining chip hidden in the corral, but it was gone. I was going to tell my mother that I needed to stop being a ranger for awhile. I got so frustrated at all of you treating me like a child, and not taking what I was saying seriously. Despite that I was right, I think I get it. Fucked up that I only learn shit when I almost die. Fucking idiot.”

Brook turns away from the Marshal so he can’t see his face, but he can hear the boy’s shoes creak as his toes grip the patio floor.

“Just put me in the cage. I already know that you’re senior enough that the judge and DA will listen to what you want. And at this point I’ve got no right to argue with you.”

Hudson: Hudson sits down on the bench outside the rather homely police station as he patiently listens to the teenager’s reply. “Yes and no, Mr. Barnes. I can put you in a cell, although it’ll be a judge’s call whether to keep you in one past the weekend.”

“You’ve had a very rough night. It sounds like you’ve had a rough life. It sounds like right now’s particularly rough. The teen years always are. I should know. I’ve put a kid through them before, and am putting another one through them now.”

Brook: Brook sniffles, rubbing his face on his shoulder. “You ever heard of the Mooners, Marshal?”

Hudson: “Regional biker gang, if I’m not off my mark,” Hudson considers. “We actually saw some bikers watching us off the canyon on our way down. God only knows why, but it’s nothing to bring them in for.”

Brook: “Those were them. When I was 12, I was sent into the woods in the winter to find a stick to punish me for giving this very Nelson a black eye. I found one of them in the woods, drugged with his leg broken. Coyote chewing on his hand. Carrying him away from there, being chased by a pack of coyotes, was the day I learned not to have petty fights.”

Hudson: “Sounds pretty ugly. I’m not about to say that your starting fights is a good idea, not after tonight, but it sounds like he was lucky you were there.”

Brook: “Was more me just saying… I don’t want to be petty with you. So… I’m sorry for causing you issues. You are going to have issues with my mother, so I’m sorry for that, too. I hope you and your granddaughter sort it out and you never have to come back to this place.” Brook takes a deep bracing breath and turns back around, nodding to the door. “Let’s go inside. We both need to sleep.”

Hudson: “I appreciate hearing that, Mr. Barnes. It’s not often that a person I’m arresting apologizes for it.” The fat Marshal gives a faint chuckle. “First time ever, in fact. That will likely mean something to a DA if he thinks you’ve already learned your lesson. A lot of people who go through our justice system never do.”

“As for my granddaughter, she’s got her problems, but she’s ultimately going through nothing that any other kid her age isn’t. I don’t think you can be a teenager without saying the words ’I’m being treated like a child and not taken seriously’ at some point.” There’s another tired smile on the disheveled man’s features. Finally he rises from his seat.

“Now, let’s.”

Brook: Brook nods and sighs. “Like a genetic curse or something.” But he does let out a small chuckle. Using his knee, he opens the door into the station and opens the door with his hip, heading a bit wobbly inside, having to lean up against the wall. His condition is getting to him again. It takes him a moment to straighten himself out, but he does, with no hands to support himself or touch his face he just leans against the wall as he waits to be processed into the jail.

Hudson: Hudson spares the handcuffed teenager the need to so awkwardly get the door by simply opening it himself. “You can let the adults handle some things, Mr. Barnes,” the marshal comments dryly.

Brook: Brook gives another little chuckle as he lets the marshal open the door. “I really don’t like handcuffs.”

GM: As the door opens, Hudson and Brook hear a gruff, yet mellow voice call out to them. “Be right with you boys.” Contrary to expectations, the voice comes not from inside the station, but from around its side. In the still morning quiet, there comes an audible ‘zip’, followed by a stream of liquid hitting the ground. “Ahhhhh,” sighs the voice in unabashed relief, “I salute you, Lady.”

Hudson: Small towns.

GM: The splashing sound goes on long enough to vacillate between awkward to impressive to concerning. But eventually, it stops. Another crisp ‘zip’ cuts the air. A mumbled song follows, as the voice’s owner rounds the corner: “Eenty teenty tirry mirry
, Ram, tam, toosh
, Crawl under the bed
, and catch a wee fat moose…”

Brook: Brook hears it all, leaning in to the marshal to whisper, “I’ll be here in the morning. Promise.” Other than that, he stands there waiting.

Hudson: Hudson merely shakes his head. “Sorry, Mr. Barnes.” Besides, the marshal is the only one with the key to his cuffs.

GM: Hudson and Brook both recognize the distinctive voice as belonging to Leslie Ferguson, local dispatch.

Hudson: That’s not the only thing distinctive.

GM: Bushy as the station flora he manages, Ferg has gray hair that’s fast becoming a Kris Kringle white. Crooked sunglasses sit between a long, bulbous nose and a creased brow. This morning, Ferg is wearing a gray T-shirt, pair of whitey-tighties, and a clip-on walkie-talkie. The ‘bareness’ of his legs, though, isn’t immediately obvious, as his wooly legs resemble long johns.

Ferg.jpg

“Any of you boys seen a watering can?” He scratches his rear while looking up at the flowers. “Storm’s made a mess of things, like Old Scratch whipped them for going to church.”

Hudson: “Afraid not, Ferg. We’re here to get Mr. Barnes bedded down for the night—day—and I’m back to the hospital.” He gives the man a second to process that, then moves to proceed inside. The marshal knows better than to harangue the locals for their ways, but he’s not going to let them waste his time either.

Brook: “Morning Mr. Fergy. Haven’t seen it no. Wind may have carried it away if it was left out.” Brook greets the man, small town style as he looks to the Marshal and follows him.

GM: “Well, that’s a shame,” Ferg replies, although to what or whom isn’t clear. He looks up at the rising sun, “Looks like it’s pants-time.”

Hudson: “A time and place for all things.” Hudson heads inside the police station.

Brook: Brook shrugs. “He’s a good man, pants or no,” he says, looking to Ferg as he follows in. “Did something happen last night Mr. Ferg? Undersherrif Bauman looked like death.”

Hudson: Brook goes in before Hudson, who initially opened the door for him. As well as the teenager might be taking his arrest, procedure remains procedure.

Brook: Well as it seems the boy is taking it, his body still groans at him to leave. To head and go through his daily rituals, to get his ass to school, to slide into the river, to take that recording to June and decide rather he wants to suck face or not. There’s too many loose ends, he resolves to simply get into his cell and sleep the pesky daylight away.

GM: Ferg obliges, escorting the marshal and teen inside the police station. He pauses long enough to slip on a pair of uniform trousers before continuing the ‘tour’.

“Here’s the booking room,” the elderly dispatcher says, waving an arm at the station’s main hub and its plaster walls, mustard-painted headboard, and scuffed hardwood floors. Tidy if dated, the area features a long, weathered booking desk; a large metal locker; spare road signs; a display case filled with various department and municipal trophies and awards; a Kelpie pennant; a framed picture of the mayor; a county map; vintage cigarette machines converted to dispense candy; and a gumball bank filled with Barbie-doll heads.

police_station1.jpg

“Up there’s the evidence room,” Ferg continues, pointing up the stairs for Hudson’s benefit. “Still cleaning up after the fire.” He then opens a door next to the vending machines, revealing a well-organized office filled with framed police academy diplomas, certificates, and badges; a shelf lined with legal and forensic binders, books, and pamphlets as well as framed wedding and child graduation photos; pin-stuck maps of Witiko Falls and surrounding environs; a trio of desks featuring blotters, an electric typewriter, writing implements, the mid-week copy of the Tribune, and a microfiche machine. Between a shelf and the back desk, a laminated piece of paper declares in mismatched, asymmetrical child print: FATHER OF THE EPOCH.

police_station2.jpg

“Sheriff’s office,” Ferg comments, “But he’s nice enough to share if you need to finish some paperwork.” Closing the door, he points to a pair of doors, “Bathroom’s on the left. Make sure you pull the lever up, not down. Break-room’s on the right. Has a fridge, and I’ve got a pot of my special maple bacon morning brew all ready. Just make sure you don’t bump the card table–we’ve got a hell of a game of Chinese Checkers going on.”

Leading his ‘guests’ down a second staircase, he adds with a sad smile, “But I guess you boys are here for the main attraction.” He ushers them down to the basement holding cells. Like the rest of the station, the place is a bit antiquated but surprisingly tidy, arguably even cozy. Although the walls and floors are concrete, they have been freshly painted in the same mustard and white as the rest of the station. Fresh, crisp sheets have laid over the bedroll, and the cell has been stocked with folded towels and toiletries. A small, high shelf holds the latter as well as a pair of framed pictures. A minuscule sink, shower, and toilet are nearly hidden by the sliding bars.

police_station3.jpg

Ferg leans against the bars and scratches his buttocks–this time through the fabric of his pants. “Yep.”

Brook: Brook has seen the inside of the station before, making deliveries for his mother, or coming to help move things around as a favor to the officers. Small town things. But the lighting almost looks different when he’s being led around by a set of handcuffs. Even the little cell he’s only ever seen a man sleeping off a few too many highballs during the day.

Hudson: Hudson looks the ‘cell’ and surroundings environs over. He’s slept in worse hotel rooms than that. He thanks Ferg for his assistance, states that he’ll do his best to avoid bumping the table (at his weight), and gets around to the booking process, starting with finding the eponymous book that contains the town’s arrest records. All five of them.

“Last time I did this, people getting arrested were chanting chanting some variation of ‘hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids you kill today’,” Hudson remarks dryly as he records Brook’s name and reason for arrest (obstructing a public officer). Then comes the mug shot. The station has a camera, but Hudson can’t find a designated location to put the pictures, so he makes do with slipping them inside the book. That’s doubtlessly not the only part of this process that’s going to get slap-dashed through.

Then comes taking clothing and personal property. In a truly stunning surprise, the small town police station lacks uniforms for jail inmates, so Brook stays in his current clothes. Hudson does take anything the teenager might have in his pockets, as well as his firearm, which he empties of its ammunition and checks to be sure the safety is on. Brook’s effects go in the designated spot for personal inventory, which Hudson is mildly surprised to find. The small town station has fingerprinting equipment too, so Hudson takes prints from Brook. He waives the medical screening. Brook was only just examined by Mt. Pelion’s nurses, and under his watch no less.

Brook: But then come the motions of getting put on the books, the photos, the processing of his belongings, the fingerprinting, everything. Internally he hopes they’re destroyed if he isn’t convicted, but as everything is completed he stands there against the wall, starting to look like death. Not only is his body rebelling and demanding sleep, but the reality of the situation is starting to weigh on him.

“You like the hand cannon? I picked it out for myself. A year ago at the end of the month.”

Hudson: “It packs some punch. Guess that’s not a surprise with the wildlife you run into here,” Hudson nods. “Hang in there just a bit longer, Mr. Barnes, we’re almost done.”

GM: Ferg watches the whole processing laconically, occasionally pointing to or unlocking something the marshal needs.

Hudson: Hudson writes up an itemized inventory of Brook’s possessions, which he signs and has the arrestee likewise do.

Brook: “457 Casull. The .500 S&W was too lanky for my taste. She can put a bear down in two shots,” he continues to say, signing the inventory.

Hudson: “I’m a Glock man myself. Standard issue to marshals, though we sometimes carry heavier for assignments like Moses.” Hudson pages through the battered ‘jail standards’ manual. It’s been a while since he did this. “All right, you just showered, so I think we can skip that step too.”

Brook: “I get too dirty in the line of work for anything but a revolver. Last thing I want is the pin failing to strike,” he mutters, closing his eyes and waiting for the man to finish.

Hudson: “Adults are also allowed an unmonitored phone call with their attorney at this point. Now your mom already knows you’re here, but if you have someone else you want to phone, feel free.”

GM: Ferg, still barefoot, listens but continues to keep his peace.

Hudson: Hudson gives the arrestee a chance to do that in privacy, if he wants, then checks through the remaining steps in the manual. He gave Brook a full body pat-down as part of claiming his possessions. He’s received his ‘thorough orientation to the facility and its operation’ courtesy of Ferg. Hudson looks around for a pamphlet containing information about the facility’s regulations governing inmate treatment and conduct, listing of programs and services available, methods of seeking information or assistance, procedure for making complaints, emergency procedures, the agency’s zero tolerance policy towards sexual assault and how to report incidences, and any other information necessary to enable the inmate to adapt to the routine of the jail.

Unsurprisingly, the marshal comes up empty-handed. He informs Brook as to this fact and tells him to ask Ferg if he has any salient questions.

GM: Ferg nods in assent.

Hudson: Upon completion of orientation, the inmate is requested to verify that he/she has been made aware of the facility’s rules, programs, and services with his/her signature. Hudson mentally sighs and drafts a statement as to that effect, making note of the ‘exceptions to general policy’, which he has Brook sign.

Oh yes, checking for warrants. Hudson dryly asks Ferg if Brook has any outstanding ones, double-checks the station’s records, and finds little to his surprise that the fifteen-year-old does not.

“To reduce the likelihood of violence and injuries from fellow prisoners, we normally ask about current and former gang affiliations. Somehow I think we can skip this step,” the marshal notes, “but if you feel your personal safety is at risk for that reason, Mr. Barnes, please don’t hesitate to notify Ferg.”

GM: “Not tats,” the dispatch says in his mellow-gruff voice.

Brook: Brook nods the process and looks around through his belongings, looking for the little baggy with the phone number and dollar bill the Mooners have given him, but doesn’t make a move to grab it.

“Oh. Marshal Hudson, I should warn you. Since my mother is no longer very happy with you, there’s some ground rules you should know. If you stay here a few more days, have you and your team put mousetraps by your door in case you sleepwalk. Don’t go near the river or into the woods without a ranger. Skinny Chet is a good choice. Don’t drive along Rockwell’s Fall. Oh, and the best coffee is on the reservation,” he says dryly. There’s nothing he wants to go over, deflecting the growing weight on his shoulders with what little humor he can scrape up. “I’ll be here sleeping, unless you want me to write out an affidavit about what happened last night from my point of view.”

GM: Ferg frowns at the mention of ‘best coffee’ being on the reservation, but otherwise waits for the marshal to finish his business.

Hudson: “I don’t think that’ll be necessary, Mr. Barnes, although you might actually find it useful as a tool for personal reflection,” Hudson replies. The county jail unsurprisingly lacks equipment to take DNA samples, so that step is also skipped. Hudson looks through the moth-eared jail standards manual (he absently wonders whether it’s older or younger than the current inmate) to double-check if there’s anything he’s missed, and goes through those steps if there is.

Finally, he provides Brook with “standard” bedding and hygiene items that amount to those he can think of off the top of his head, though he does also pause to ask the teenager if there’s anything else he needs. Then, at long last, he sees the tired Brook into his cell. He’s since lost the handcuffs, along with his necklace.

“All right, Mr. Barnes, get some sleep. Judges and warrants will come tomorrow.”

Brook: The only major complaint the teen has is, in fact, that necklace. “Marshal. Before you go, do you think we could break procedure just a bit, and let me get that necklace back? It’s kind of incredibly important to me. Even just the pendant without the chain.”

Hudson: Hudson shakes his head. “I’m sorry, Mr. Barnes, but breaking procedure is why we’re here in the first place. You can get it back for the drive out tomorrow.”

Brook: Brook almost neurotically taps his fingers against the bars, looking around the office for where the items are kept as he nods. “Okay. Can you make sure it’s tied around the hand cannon, then? Just so it doesn’t wander off. It’s good medicine for me.”

Hudson: “I think we can manage that.” Hudson brings both items back, ties the necklace where Brook can see him doing so, and returns them to inventory.

Brook: He relaxes slightly and nods. “Thank you. I’m going to force myself to sleep, then. You get some rest too, Marshal.”

Hudson: “I’ll try my best there,” the marshal dryly replies. “All right, Ferg, I’m out of your hair. You can contact my team over radio if there’s anything.”

GM: Ferg nods again, and sums up their encounter by saying, “Guess it’s time to crack the case of the missing watering can.”

Hudson: With those parting words, the still muddy-suited marshal (though that mud has since caked over dry from the building’s heat) pauses to thoroughly inspect one last, very important component of the facility’s operations—its converted cigarette-to-candy-dispensing machines.

Once that duty is discharged, Hudson gets into the police truck and drives back to the Ghost Elk Lodge to pick up a fresh change of clothes for himself and his two deputies. He nicely asks the hotel employees for the room keycards at first, explaining why he needs to get into his deputies’ rooms, and that he appreciates the exception they’re making to hotel policy. Any employees who refuse him, however, get a marshal’s badge thrust in their face coupled with the stone-hard stare of a man who’s been through god knows what, and whose clothes certainly look the part. Hudson may even growl something about “obstructing a federal law enforcement agent in the execution of his duties.”

Whether the marshal gets what he wants through politesse or the fact that Idaho’s $5.15 minimum wage doesn’t come close to the cost of getting in his way, however, Hudson doesn’t linger at the Ghost Elk; he’ll change and shower back at the hospital. A radio dispatch tells his people that he is en route back to Mt. Pelion with fresh clothes, and that Cassidy and Curtis can look forward to a long overdue night’s sleep. He and the comparatively-rested Max will take over guarding Moses.

His uncle, a WWII vet, always said never to ask anything of your men you won’t do yourself, but the 54-year-old still heaves a mental sigh at the thought of staying up for another eight hours. At moments like these, the three years until mandatory retirement don’t seem so bad. He consoles himself with the thought that these next eight hours won’t be anywhere nearly so arduous as the past eight.

Besides, the hospital has vending machines.

Not anywhere near as arduous, the marshal thinks as the Almond Joy bar crunches under his teeth.

Hazel: Attila Awakens


Day ? Month ? Year ?

GM: Oblivion falls into Hazel like a tempest pouring into a dark, churning sea. But the sea has limbs. Many, many limbs. They’re naked, dirty, and invisible in the dead blackness. But she feels them all around her. Shuffling, clinging, wringing. Fingers, hands, arms, legs, feet. She hears the fetters on those limbs too. The clanging of metal cufflinks and cold chains against stone and flesh. She hears voices. Moaning, screaming, and the kind of naked, soul-wrenching crying that can only be uttered in the dark.

It does not take Hazel long to realize that at least some of those shackled limbs belong to her.

Hazel: Mental institution
Sweeneys
Can’t be allowed to walk free
Make up for this
Dead
Marilyn
Can’t risk killing again

The thoughts roar through her mind like an ocean’s onrushing tide. She flings herself after them, following oblivion’s siren call to the benthic depths of unconsciousness. An icy steel floe crashes against her instead. Consciousness shudders through her with all of its attendant pains and burdens. No. No! She wanted—her cry joins the damned chorus as she instinctively thrashes against her fetters, a wordless splash of protest within the churning entropic sea.

I’m not a killer…

GM: Her thrashing is drowned in the cacophony of limbs and lamentations, but as her physical protestations join the chained chorus, Hazel recognizes several of the voices. They’re too familiar, as are the brushes of limbs against her own flesh.

Initially, in the darkness, it was too easy to attribute the disorientation to the lack of light and unknown surroundings, but now… now, she realizes that blurred sense of where she begins and ends is also due to the uncanny familiarity of the limb’s shapes and movements, the eerie similarity of the voices’ timbre and pitch.

They’re hers. All of them. All save one.

The exception is faint, almost imperceptible in the sea of her voices and thrashings. Perhaps she merely remembers it, and like a key found in the dark, it takes her memory a moment to fumble at the edges, turning it in her protean mind until it correctly aligns with mental tumblers and clicks open the cognitive lock.

Gaire no i dormet.

Hazel: No, not Latin. French? No, not that either. But closer. Linguistically and geographically. Occitan.

Don’t fall asleep.

It’s from Sponsus, a medieval Latin and Occitan liturgical play. It contains the first known inclusion of demons in western drama. She’d long since read Inferno, Paradise Lost, and Faust’s sad tale by the time she was fifteen, but she was curious what “the first work of dramatic literature to feature demons” was. She remembers asking that question of Mrs. Griswold, who didn’t know the answer off-hand, but directed her towards several books that might contain it. She’s not sure if that question got a phone call home or not. If it did, her parents were long since inured to that sort of thing. She eventually found her answer and Sponsus copy after enough hours spent plumbing the Chimera. She remembers sharing the former with her mother over dinner.

“The work of Western dramatic literature to feature demons is Sponsus. It’s an adaptation of the biblical parable of the ten virgins. The demons only feature at the ending, though, when they drag the five foolish virgins to hell. It’s not as if they’re developed characters on the level of Faust’s Mephistopheles.”

“That’s interesting, dear.”

She clings to the memories. Clings to them like a child’s security blanket. She can bury it against her eyes and shut out all the awful things she doesn’t want to see. What did they have for dinner, it was… a weekend, that’s why she wasn’t eating a Prince Pizza home alone, or leaving it in the fridge to go have dinner at Gramps’ house with him and Dad. Mom had put her foot down that further evenings at Harvey’s were in violation of their court-agreed visitation schedule, but she couldn’t do anything about Hazel visiting her grandfather, and oh well if her dad happened to live literally next door. She remembers how smug her voice was when she confronted her mother about it. “You have no legal basis with which to prevent me from visiting relatives besides my father,” she’d proclaimed.

She tries to lose herself in the memories. To drown out the press of grasping, fettered, disembodied (?) limbs beneath thoughts of home and family. She tells herself that her memories are an essential component of the experiences that make her who she is, beyond whatever superficial resemblances this faceless mass of flesh might have to her own. It’s not me, it’s not me, it’s not me, there’s only one of me…

Her own voice—voices—cry and wail in her ears.

This isn’t real. Can’t be real! It’s all in my head, all in my head, all in my head…

‘She’ sobs. Another ‘she’ in the wailing tempest of flesh and steel. Another scene from another medieval drama about hell.

With that, the doleful notes began to rasp
my consciousness; I’ve come into a zone
where pain’s expressed by shriek and moan and gasp
where not the feeblest ray of light is known,
which squalls and bellows like an ocean tempest
when the waves are driven by the cyclone;
this infernal, never-ending blast
drives every soul before it in its sweep,
tormenting them with every turn and twist,
who, confronted by the ruin, weep,
and gnash their teeth, and moan, and curse, and swear,
and blaspheme God, and bawl, and howl, and shriek.


Another scream sounds, as audible as a raindrop in a thunderstorm. She’d wished for oblivion. Not hell.

Don’t fall asleep.

But that wasn’t her voice.

Leo? He gave her the pills…

V.I.T.R.I.O.L.V.M. Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem Veram Medicinam. Visit the interior of the Earth; by rectification thou shalt find the hidden stone.

Her mind races. The “Chamber of Reflection.” A place for the initiate to contemplate death and the dissolution of impurities. The awakening initiate.

Don’t fall asleep.

She’d sought oblivion. But Leo is out there, trying to help her. And she’d wanted his help. She remembers going to him, entrusting him with that letter to give her parents, in case of the worst…

No! I hope it gathers dust in your file cabinet forever. She has to get to her parents! She has to let them know she’s all right—and to do that she has to be all right! All in my head. Yes, this is what’s in her head. An external manifestation of her inner turmoils. This mental hell, this wailing mass of suffering and ignorance. Outrage flares in her. That isn’t what she is! She has to fight!

Part of her sags at the question. But where to even begin? How does one extinguish a roaring bonfire with a mere thimble of water?

No. Don’t start with the big picture. She’s always been a procrastinator, justifying it in the name of putting off the impossible. Dad always advised her: just do the little things, one at a time. The first line on the police report. Make the task smaller.

Tears in the dark. There are no tears as lonely and afraid as those. She remembers crying in her bed at night during the divorce. She remembers her nemesis hiding under another bed at night, the room’s lights as dead as his pulse. She remembers being sent tumbling down that madhouse flight of stairs, blind, helpless, dying, and afraid.

I’m sick of being afraid!

She thrusts a shackled limb into the screaming tempest. She plucks a low-hanging fruit from the great transcendental Tree whose roots extend even into such barren soil. A fruit hanging just above the foot of Matter.

She’s never been religious. She’s not praying to any god for deliverance now. But the scriptural verse is all-too appropriate to her present circumstances.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said,

FIAT LUX!” (LET THERE BE LIGHT!”) Hazel roars.

After all, it’s easier to stay awake with the lights on.

GM: As the echoes of Hazel’s raw, primeval roar crash against the dark, cacophonous sea of susurrating limbs, clanging fetters, and piteous weeping, a solitary light flashes into blinding brilliance.

Above the teeming masses, the light unfolds like a heavenly, blossoming rose. But as the radiance grows, Hazel perceives the ‘petals’ as scores of wings, feathered and full of fathomless eyes that burn and turn as wheels within wheels of fire. As those gazing wings unfurl, a still half-hidden figure takes shape, its skin a cerulean blue that scintillates with the golden microcosm of galaxies. From that body of celestial bodies, a pair of seraphic arms emerges. The first bears a name-engraved, gold-plated bullhorn whose shape flickers between an ox’s hollow tine and an electric megaphone. In the latter form, static hisses:

INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER

The seraph’s second hand holds a burden that also oscillates in form. One moment, Hazel perceives it as a bundle of scrolls sealed with waxen seals. The next, she sees an open Micron laptop displaying unread, encrypted emails. In its former visage, the seal bears a peculiar cross with an inscription that sears Hazel’s psyche:

IN HOC SIGNO VINCES

Drawing the bullhorn to its wing-shrouded lips, the seraph speaks:

“If thou
 were not so behold to thine own conceits, thou wouldst received much enlightenment 
from my mother’s heritage. But lo, thine eye hearkens not, so thou lies in such fettered straits. And yet my dearest mother
 will not regard thy mischief. Behold her condescension, 
that many a one might awaken to the light, though this may chance but seldom 
that they be better esteemed, nor reckoned as mere fable. Therefore in honor of the feast which today shall commence, 
that her grace may be multiplied, a good work will she do: The rope will now be lowered; whoever may hang on to it, shall be freed.”

Its declaration made, the seraph refolds its wings in a reverse blossoming till it becomes a singularity of light. No longer blinding, the point of radiance reveals a rope being lowered from some unknown height nigh to the floor of the previously pitch-black cave. That same light reveals the cave’s manifold inhabitants–or perhaps, manifold inhabitant.

For the only person in the cave with Hazel is Hazel. Hazels. How many exactly Hazel cannot tell. But each is stripped, shackled, and squinting as she perceives the light-born rope.

Escape.

Hazel: At any other time, any other day, the unreal sight of her countless chained tormented selves would make Hazel lose her stomach. Or her mind. But she’s come close enough to losing that already. For good or ill, it has tempered. She was once asleep. She is now Awake.

And it is always better to see than be blind.

She regards the many-winged and many-eyed seraph’s appearance with wide eyes at first, but quickly steels herself. She knows she’s dreaming. She swallowed those pills, which have set off god only knows what chemical reactions in her brain. Nevertheless, after all she’s seen… if ghosts and vampires are real, why not angels? But real in the waking world or real only in her mind’s eye, occult writings are all but universal in their consensus on one point:

Such entities are never to be entreated with lightly.

And there can be no mistake, she is now entreating with such a being. Fiat Lux.

John Dee was intensely interested in finding a copy of the Biblical Book of Enoch, and many of the angelic conversations concern Dee’s inquiries about an “Adamic” language that he termed " Celestiall Speech," “First Language of God-Christ,” but best known as, “Angelicall.” Dee believed that God used this language to create the world and was thus implicitly underlying all physical structure. Angelicall was further used by the first man, Adam, to talk with God and the angels. Adam had not sampled the fruit of Tree of Knowledge—a pan-cultural myth variously revered as Yggdrasil, the oak of Dodona, old Prussian oaks inhabited by old pagan golds, and many others—and so was blind to the power inherent to his speech. His descendants were not. The Tower of Babel, another pan-cultural myth, represented nothing less than the power of a universal language to cross the barriers between earth and heaven, endowing men with the power of gods. In Renaissance Hermetic Christian belief, in common with all Abrahamic faiths, the Biblical patriarch Enoch (“Idris” in Islamic tradition, and associated with Tehuti, Hermes, and Thoth—translated by the Greeks as Hermes Trismegistus, three times very, very great) was the one known human after the Tower’s fall who also spoke this language.

Commentators have used the term “Enochian” to distinguish John Dee’s “Angelical” from other “angelic” languages, noting the widespread Judeo-Christian tradition that there was a divine language, spoken by the angels, that matched the sacred numbering and ordering used in their creation story. It is a language of light, in whichever of many contexts one understands “light,” traceable to the “Fiat Lux” or “Let there be light” of Genesis. Dee makes multiple plays on “Fiat Lux” on the frontispiece of his better-known works.

By the time Dee and his long-time associate Edward Kelley began their angelic conversations, Dee was convinced that Hebrew (or some proto-Hebrew that could be “corrected” by Kaballistic study) was constructed by Adam after the Fall based on a shadowy memory of true Enochian. Indeed, other Renaissance Kabbalists, both Jewish and Christian, thought the primary language was Hebrew; modern students of the mystical Kabballah, who believe that the “22 sounds and letters of the Hebrew alphabet are the foundation of all things,” ordering the first creation of earth and stars in the heavens, and represented by different occult symbols and gematria, can recognize the outline of this belief system in modern esotericism. Gematria, the system of assigning numerical value to letters in sacred alphabets, especially Hebrew and ancient Greek, is derived from both the ancient Greek words for geometry (measurement of the earth or world) and grammar.

Indeed, to Dee, linguistic gematria assume an implicit connection between number and letter. Kaballists often map the 22 letters of Hebrew to a cube, the “building block,” so to speak, of three dimensional reality. It is not much of a stretch to hypothesize that, just as Hebrew maps to three dimensions, Enochian maps to four dimensions. While one does not usually think of modern languages mapping implicitly to geometric structures, John Dee did. That, to him, was part of what made a language sacred.

It is no less so to Hazel. The young woman with autism has always been a visual learner.

Dee’s most famous work, the Hieroglyphic Monad or Monas Hieroglyphica, and a related much longer work, the Propeudamata Aphoristica–all stamped with “Fiat Lux”–explicitly combine sacred languages and sacred geometry within an alchemical system purporting to show the structure of physical reality and how it is placed within the larger cosmos; both make use of four dimensional mathematics and show an understanding of gravitational forces 100 years before Newton.

Hazel read those volumes during her senior year in high school and deduced that Dee’s first 17 theorems could be considered his “outer mysteries,” and the final of these, 17, also a transition to his “inner mysteries.” By Theorem 17, Dee makes an ingenious language play upon the word "light"—once again, in Latin lux, then written LVX—that suggests the INRI/LVX transformation central to modern western esotericism, as well as connecting to the geometry of conic sections and specifically, letters formed when a plane intersects two cones in particular ways. To Dee, understanding the concept of light and the transformation of shape stood at the border between the inner and outer mysteries. Curiously, and with prescient accuracy, it also stood between his concepts of three-dimensional and four-dimensional geometry: by Theorem 20, he is outlining the use of a hypercube for those who have eyes to see.

Hazel has those eyes now.

This celestial rope, this lux, is her first step in ascending from Plato’s blind cave to Dee’s innermost mysteries. But she cannot ascend while she is literally shackled to this naked, tormented mass of her crying and blinded selves. They literally do not see the path to escaping their present state. Hazel pities them. She would help them, if she could.

No, she abruptly then decides, she would not. Power demands self-sacrifice. That is another constant in all mystic traditions. Odin sought wisdom by hanging himself upon the Yggdrasil, a sacrifice of himself to himself. These other Hazels… they are her and she is they. If they were nothing to her, she would not still linger in this miserable cave.

“I have brought you light and shown you a path out of this hell! Those of you who would follow me, rise now and break your chains!”

That is what must come next: she must sever her link to those parts of herself that lack the resolve to follow.

Hazel firmly seizes the shining celestial rope with both hands, tugs down, and drapes it over the lengths of chain connecting her foremost-self to her pitiful other-selves. There is a great difference between men like Dee and Crowley and the prophets of the Bible: all of them might entreat with angels, but where Daniel trusted God’s messengers to deliver him from danger, Crowley recognized that the will to power comes from within. And by her will, these shackles will fetter her no longer.

In hoc signo vinces. The cross inspired Constantine, but he still fought and won the battle.

Hazel twists the rope’s length into the Enochian glyph for eight—a number long associated with misfortune, for it is just shy of the numeric perfection represented by nine—the three threes. Eight is perfection unrealized and potential unfulfilled.

Enochian_8.jpg

As the radiant glyph sears itself into her vision, her will flows outwards.It seeps past the tumblers and empty spaces in the shackles’ mechanisms like water, willing them to…

OPEN!”

GM: Matter obeys Hazel’s whim, acquiescing with a sharp, metallic click. Her heavy shackles fall away from her like shed skin, clanging to the stoney ground beneath her.

The echo of her release, however, is soon swallowed up by the chorus of cries and violent jostling as the other Hazels surge towards the rope with desperate ferocity. The sea of selves crash down upon the rope, clawing at one another, clinging to each other madly, and in their fury and frantic attempts to escape, Hazel–in all her imploding manifold–loses the rope as it begins to rise and withdraw from the mob-like mass that consumes oneness and devours the boundary of self from non-self, till all become the one that is none.

Hazel: You… cunts! I try to do something for you! Hazel’s simultaneous wrath and terror flash through the gloom—and it answers. Shadows cast by the glowing Hazel-tossed rope twist, bend, and congeal into an umbral specter born from her—from their—worst fears. The light surrounding the rope dims, its promise of salvation revealed as all-too false, all-too feeble against the encroaching dark.

But the darkness is not empty. It’s where the bogeyman lives. He’s there. He’s always been there. But this time he’s come to her.

As the weird shadows congeal into the looming outline of a grotesquely oversized ventriloquist’s doll, Hazel’s voice simultaneously booms like thunder yet drops to an almost intimate pitch, seemingly whispered into the ears of her terror-struck other-selves, as the phantasmal duplicate of her nemesis hisses the same sanity-shattering words that cast her into this abysmal pit:

YOU. KILLED. THEM.”

GM: Terror incarnate seizes Hazels’ psyches, and suffocates them with sheer panic. Some curl into fetal positions, naked and chained, yet numb to the thrashing and trampling of their other selves as they attempt to flee, blindly as before, yet this time violently seized and halted by their chains. The panic creates rippling spirals of chaos and anarchy, fear and horror. Several selves pass out, others slump asphyxiating as if no air can enter their lungs, while others scream unceasingly as if their lungs can do nothing but vomit air.

Hazel: Hazel—the real Hazel, or so she tells herself—doesn’t waste a second. It’s all a trick, all a trick, all a trick… and she knows it, seizing for the golden rope as her wretched other-selves recoil in terror. It’s only fitting that the one Hazel to see past the phantasmal terror, to not be shackled down by her fears and disabilities, should so ascend.

“Don’t you get it? That’s why you’re here,” she whispers. To herself. Herselves.

GM: The rope rises like the sun. As Hazel climbs that dawn, the prisoners and the panic-inducing shadow-play on the cave wall fall away into darkness. As the last of their terror-wrought echoes die, Hazel can almost hear the voices of Glaucon and Socrates discussing another, although all-too eerily similar cave:

Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light.

You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another

Hazel: She stares past those shadows towards the rising light. Every night must pass into dawn.

Kurt: Mind’s Eye


Monday afternoon, 6 October 1998

GM: Scarecrow Cinema. The film projector clicks on. Its unique hum and heat fill the small projectionist’s booth as the apparatus fires out into the large theater and fills the massive movie screen like white-burning phosphorus. Built in 1895 as part of the original baroque opera house that preceded the building’s re-opening as the Scarecrow Cinema in the 1970s, the main theater room still retains a glimmer of its lost halcyon nights when the wealthy sanatoria patients flocked to listen and watch the ghostly revenge of Don Giovanni, the salacious dance of seven veils of Salome, and the bloodbaths of Elektra.

Tonight, another kind of ‘classic’ is about to start. Less than a handful of patrons take their seats in the sloped–floor seating under the opulent curve–plaster ceiling with its neoclassical–noveau sea of wheels, stars, and naked Venus rising from her supernal clam.

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Back in the projectionist’s booth, Kurt notes lamentably that less than a third of the audience stayed for the second half of tonight’s double feature. His employer and the proprietor of the Scarecrow, Mordecai Clay, had decided to do a re–run of the 1962 exploitation double–feature of Eyes Without a Face and The Manster, billing both under their American debut names, The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus and The Split as well as their original foreign titles, Les Yeux Sans Visage and Sôtô no Satsujinki.

If any of the township’s residents appreciate the nod to history, it doesn’t seem to show. Then again, it is a Monday late-night showing. Still, as another pair of patrons decide to pass on Breakston’s and Crane’s tokusatsu, Kurt wonders whether Mordecai might shut down the showing–which would mean the senior would get off early. Which would be nice–except for the fact that his family is strapped for cash. Yet, any doubt is erased when Mordecai himself walks into the theater and takes a seat, effectively doubling the seated viewers–but not paying customers. The bald albino gestures to the booth, indicating that ‘the show must go on’.

Kurt: A small smile plays out on Kurt’s tired face as he spots Mordecai. He then proceeds to continue the double-feature, watching the screen, still enraptured by the strange, muted horror of Eyes Without a Face. He looks forward to The Manster.

GM: Like the corpse-dumping inception of the French-Italian horror film, the The Manster’s beginning signals violence to its audience with its opening credits: a rice-paper door splattered with blood.

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As the movie reel rolls out the plot, Kurt watches as an American reporter, Larry Stanford, is sent to interview an eccentric Japanese scientist working on weird ‘cosmic evolutionary’ experiments in his mountain laboratory in Japan. After his experiments grotesquely fail using his own wife and family, the doctor realizes that Larry is the perfect subject for his next experiment, so he drugs and injects him with a serum, and then leads him on a profligate tour with the aid of his Eurasian seductive assistant, Tara. Eventually, the transformation begins as Larry’s shoulder becomes pained–only to sprout a monstrous eye that opens and stares at its host and the audience.

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The next phantasmagoric scene, however, is interrupted for Kurt as the booth’s side-door opens. It’s his fellow senior and cinema colleague, Morgan Thompson. The recent transplant from the West Coast pulls up a chair and plops down beside Kurt. Tonight, the goth-girl’s raspberry-black hair dye is showing the natural blonde’s roots. As usual, she has shirked the cinema’s ‘uniform’ vest and white shirt to reveal bleach–stained ripped jeans and a black heavy metal band T–shirt with a necklace-strung razor–blade. Embellished with black eyeliner and similarly hued lipstick, her pale face and violet eyes regard Kurt.

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She passes him a tub of popcorn. “You should eat something. You’re starting to look like a Scarecrow yourself.”

Kurt: Kurt, composing himself after jumping a little at Morgan’s intrusion, half-smiles as he casually accepts the proffered popcorn. “Thank you,” he says, looking away from the screen to turn to Morgan with a slightly quirked brow. He takes a small handful of popcorn and then tilts the tub in Morgan’s direction. “We can share.”

He then looks back at the movie screen, giving a coy glance back at his co-worker. “Do you really think I am starting to look like a scarecrow?” he asks, crinkling his nose. He has been skipping breakfast lately.

GM: Morgan shakes her head at Kurt’s offer to share. “I don’t think Eliot or Foster wash their hands after using the bathroom.” She smirks to let Kurt know she’s joking. Probably.

On the screen, the ‘evolving’ protagonist wanders Tokyo late at night. He murders a woman on the street, a Buddhist monk, and a psychiatrist, while slowly changing form, culminating in him growing a second head out of the shoulder on which only the eye had been.

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As Morgan watches the B-movie grade special effects and murder scenes, she comments: “This is way better than the mainstream movie I’m ‘showing’ in the other theater. Urban Legend,” she adds, supplying the new release’s title. “But go figure, that drivel’s drawing at least ten times the crowd.”

She peeks through the booth’s glass. “Which sadly isn’t saying much, but still. And did you really have to slip in your friend again, that Wilson guy? I mean, he doesn’t even watch the movies–he just gets uses the theater as his fuck-pad. It’s gross. It’s bad enough with Mordecai showing porn to the drunks after we leave.”

Kurt: Kurt pauses in his chewing when Morgan mentions the popcorn could be contaminated, looking a little worried. He eats a little more slowly as the pair watch the movie. “Urban Legend is formulaic crap,” he answers, agreeing with Morgan, “but even more damning, it just isn’t scary.” He turns back to The Manster. “This is weird and intense.” Kurt clearly means that as a compliment.

He grins cheekily at the mention of Wilson’s supposed exploits. “What do you mean?” he asks, looking surprised.

GM: She rolls her black-lined eyes. “I mean, he’s a douchebag with tats. Why do you hang out with him?”

Kurt: Kurt’s smile lessens as he takes on a more serious tone. He meets Morgan’s eyes. “Wilson isn’t a douchebag,” he answers, completely sincere as he defends his best friend. “He’s the most reliable person I know.” Kurt adds more gently, “Sorry. You know I’d defend you if anyone tried to say shit about you too, right?”

GM: Morgan gives a noncommittal shrug and returns her attention to the movie.

On screen, the now two-headed serial murderer seeks a cure as he climbs the volcano to Dr. Suzuki’s laboratory–just as Suzuki informs Tara that Larry has become “an entirely new species” and beyond remedy. As the ‘Manster’ confronts the doctor, the latter tricks Larry into approaching him so he can inject his ‘subject’ with an altered enzyme designed to split the protagonist into two different creatures.

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Dr. Suzuki succeeds–but the injection costs him his life as the transformed monster-man murders him and destroys his lab in a fit of feral rage. Morgan watches as the seductress Tara flees the steam-flooding lab up the side of the volcanic summit. Larry pursues her to the lip of the volcano, which is beginning to erupt. There, he splits into two completely separate entities, one looking just like the original Larry, the other a bestially hirsute humanoid male.

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Kurt: Kurt watches with rapt interest, slowly eating away at the tub of popcorn. He begins to feel like a drink due to the salt, though.

GM: This monstrous second being grabs his once-femme fatale and hurls her into the volcano, just as the ‘human’ side of Larry rallies and pushes the monster in after her. Soon thereafter, the protagonist’s formerly spurned wife arrives with a platoon of policemen who swarm through Dr. Suzuki’s lab before carrying away the still–weakened split–man. The tokusatsu then ends with a final shot of the erupting volcano in the distant background.

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As the projector whirls through the last of the tape, Morgan stands. “I better get back to my booth before the boss catches me abandoning my post.”

Kurt: Kurt looks up at Morgan, nodding as he gets to his feet, too. “Yeah.” His answer is unusually short. He then proceeds to focus solely on his job, working the projector.

GM: “Later,” Morgan replies in an equally terse, emotionally truncated manner as she leaves his booth.

Kurt: Kurt ignores Morgan as she leaves the booth, not saying another word. He is tempted to ask her for a drink of Pepsi to sate his parched throat, but instead focuses on tidying up and emptying the projector, deciding to not tempt Morgan’s wrath.

GM: As the one paying customer ambles out, Mordecai remains for a moment as if savoring the cinema or its solitude. Eventually though, he rises and heads to the booth just as Kurt finishes closing up shop–at least for his shift. As the albino man stands in the hallway, Kurt is reminded of his first ‘employment interview’ with Mr. Clay.

August 1996

GM: As a horror movie enthusiast and impoverished sophomore, Kurt asks for an employment application at the ticket counter after seeing the re-showing of the 1963 splatter film, Blood Feast. He’s rebuffed, or so he had believes, until the one–year–older usher, Jimmy Newton, tells him that Mr. Clay wants to interview him for a job.

Leading Kurt through the cobweb–strewn halls of the cinema, Jimmy stops just short of an ornate office door half-hid by a seven–foot–tall wicker man with scorched baby dolls trapped in its stomach. At the time, Jimmy’s weird mannerisms made Kurt suspect he is being played or set up for a prank. Over time, he learns the truth: Jimmy was scared.

Left to approach and enter Mr. Clay’s room alone, Kurt first notices the buzzing sound. After knocking and entering the room, a lone insect drones past his face, the creature too obscured by the darkness to identify. The office’s interior is no less bizarre than its entrance. Black velvet curtains conceal the office’s four walls, or what Kurt assumes are four walls. The floor is made of cold, crimson and bone–colored marble tiles that have been cut and arranged in repeating zig–zagging lines. The pattern is lit by a single, unshaded lightbulb dangling from the ceiling. A rocking chair that eerily resembles the one from Psycho sits in a curtained corner. The only other furniture is a large desk with various movie prop mementos. Behind it stands a naked man. Or almost–naked man. For upon their first meeting, Mordecai Clay’s naked, hairless, fish-belly pale skin is covered in bees.

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Kurt’s first interview question is equally atypical. “Are you allergic to bee-stings?” Mordecai asks, standing stock still as the honey bees swarm his albino skin.

Kurt: Kurt is scared and confused, of course. He barely registers the strange man’s question on any conscious level, but nevertheless he finds himself answering as if on autopilot. “No. I am not allergic to bee stings.”

GM: Mr. Clay doesn’t nod–likely out of concern that he’ll crush or startle some of the venomous insects. Instead, he just answers, “I am. Deathly so. Should I get stung, the epi-pen in the front drawer likely won’t save me.” He then just stands there for a while, bees crawling over his honey–lathered naked body, with the fifteen–year–old Kurt standing in his door.

“What did you think of the movie?” he eventually asks.

Kurt: “I liked it. It was a bit campy, though,” Kurt answers honestly, spooked enough to avoid lying to this strange man. “It is surprisingly gory for its time.” He then asks his own question: “Why are you naked and covered in bees, Mr. Clay?”

GM: Mordecai moves slowly as he points to the rocking chair. “Would you like to sit down? Norman’s mother seemed to enjoy it.” He had then adds, without waiting to see Kurt’s reaction, “I believe ‘naked’ and ‘covered’ are antonyms…” he pauses as if unsure of the young man’s name.

Kurt: “Kurt.” Kurt adds, “Kurt Crawford, Mr. Clay.”

GM: “Yes… Kurt Crawford. But to better answer your question, Kurt, let me ask a related follow-up to my earlier one. Why did you and so many others then and now enjoy a splatter film like Blood Feast?”

Kurt: “I like gore and monsters.” Kurt then pauses, thinking over his answer. “I can’t say why other people like it, but those are my reasons.” He shuffles his feet awkwardly. “I do have to say that chair looks remarkably like the one from Psycho, Mr. Clay.” He wonders at the time if Mr. Clay is Witiko Falls’ very own Norman Bates, uncovered except for a swarm of bees before him. “What did you like about Blood Feast?”

GM: Mr. Clay blinks, scattering a trio of bees which had droned irritably close to his pink eyes. “Some call splatter films torture porn, Kurt, but they rarely question why gore is so arousing to our species. We are predators, yes, but I believe there is a more important answer. Something that makes us special. I believe we alone of the species have the capacity to understand and contemplate our mortality while simultaneously rejecting and denying it.”

He had then slowly raises a honey and bee slathered hand. He winces. “A honey bee has one sting in it–but its sting comes at the cost of its life. Yet, I doubt it feels any terror at its own stinger. It’s ‘thoughts’ are alien and unknowable, yet I believe they lack the sophistication of the human mind–the ability to grasp that it will one day die.” He lowers his hand. Slowly.

“Some say films like Blood Feast appeal to the inner serial–killing sociopath inside all or some of us. I disagree. I think we are moths attracted to the flame. We go about our lives constructing societies and cultures all designed to help us ignore, forget, and deny our own mortality. But films like Blood Feast rip back the veil and remind ourselves brutally that we are made of corruptible, fragile flesh and blood that is inevitably doomed to die.”

“They allow us to ‘live’ out our own death drives or thanatosis safely from our cushioned seats. They allow us to face the horror of death, or at least pretend to as they disillusion us of our veneer of invincibility and immortality. And by doing so, they foreshadow the cathartic thrill of our own private apocalypse.” His pink eyes gaze down meaningfully at his body.

“There is ecstasy in facing fear, Kurt. Power and pleasure from peeking inside our own coffins. It’s why we love roller-coasters as well as horror films.” He turns to the still-standing teenager as a dozen bees crawl over his bald scalp. “Does that answer your question, Kurt?”

Kurt: Kurt mulls over Mr. Clay’s words. The man is weird as fuck, of course–but in some weird, messed up way, Kurt appreciates the man’s intensity and remains steadfast. “As far as a movie being a vehicle for our own morbid curiosities, there’s something to be said for who you project yourself onto on the big screen: are you the victim or the monster?” Kurt shuffles his feet awkwardly again.

GM: “In the end, we are always, inevitably the victim, Kurt. The only way to escape that fact is to escape our mortality–and that inevitably requires us to become a monster.”

And then, as if they had been simply talking about Kurt’s prior employment history or occupational aspirations, Mordecai suddenly concludes the ‘interview’.

“You’re hired. Welcome to the Scarecrow Cinema. See Bertha Phelps about all the tedious but necessary paperwork. Once they’re all submitted, she’ll contact you about your hours and training.” He then adds, almost reluctantly, “And pay.”

Monday evening, 6 October 1998

GM: Back in the projectionist’s booth, now two years later as one of the most senior staff still working at the theater, Kurt looks up to see Mordecai, thankfully clothed and absent any bees, standing in the booth’s threshold. “What did you think of the film?” he asks, mirroring Kurt’s old memories of their first discussion.

Kurt: “I liked it whenever the eye broke the fourth wall,” Kurt answers his employer. “It felt like I was part of the movie, or the roles were switched, and I was being watched instead.” Kurt chuckles good-naturedly. “It was also pretty cool when he got split into two parts. What did you think?”

GM: Like Kurt did two years, Mordecai remains standing in the threshold as he answers. “I enjoyed how Dr. Suzuki was an inversion of the stereotypical introverted, socially awkward and reserved scientist. There was also the subtlety of him refusing to use the serum on his wife, despite her volunteering–and then how she injected herself against his will only to transform into a caged monster he was forced to dispose of. That his second test subject was his own brother who volunteered was another interesting twist. In short, his ethics were twisted and degrading, but not inhuman or entirely absent.”

“Apart from that there’s the often under-appreciated historical impact of the film. I believe it inspired Evil Dead‘s two-headed Ash and subsequent doppleganger scene. Otherwise, it has many great aspects to it, but there were a few things that keep me from considering it one of the truly great films. First, the dialog often fell short of the mark. In particularly, there were missed opportunities for Dr. Suzuki to monologue more deeply about man’s evolution and the motivations and fears driving his work in general.”

“Also, he had also apparently taken Tara from… somewhere very unpleasant that she doesn’t want to ever have to go back to, but they never say what it was. Was it a whorehouse? Was it an orphanage? Was she living on the streets? Who knows? They were deliberately vague on that point, and I don’t know why. It was another missed opportunity, a foreshadowing that fell flat–particularly because they mentioned it multiple times but never made it come to fruition.”

Mordecai’s pink eyes light up with an obsessive glint as he continues, “Now where this movie really shined was with the monster make-up, particular for its time. Dr. Suzuki’s brother Genji turned into a creature that was very similar to what developed in Larry and eventually separated from him. It had both ape and human-esque features, creating an atavistic element that drove straight down the uncanny valley. I also enjoyed Emiko’s look, with her features resembling melting wax plugged with bulging misshapen eyes and teeth. Her caged scenes helped drive home the point that evolution may not produce forms we currently consider beautiful. The future might be frighteningly ugly. And then there was the two-headed manster itself. Did you notice how the second head wasn’t just a still dummy, but had animatronics? And they were put to gruesome display as he went on his killing spree.”

“And did you know that Jayne Hylton, the main actor’s real life wife, played his wife Linda in the film? I can’t help but wonder if he wasn’t having a bit more fun with the way he was verbally and eventually physically abusing her because of it. It’s probably a lot easier to do those sorts of things with someone you’re married to than with someone you just met when they started filming, but that’s just speculation on my part. Regardless, I have to give credit to Jayne for her scream when Linda first sees Larry’s second head. It was like she bottled the sound of terror.”

Mordecai idly pulls the lobe of his left ear before concluding his answer. “But one of my favorite parts is the ending. The original ending. Originally, the climax gives way to a much longer, more thoughtful denouement, but they cut that out in the stateside release.” The albino’s ‘Witiko eyes’ gleam as he regards his favorite employee and adds, “I, however, have a copy of it on VHS if you would like to watch it.”

Kurt: Kurt’s eyes light up. “Yes. That would be great, Mr. Clay.” He adds, “It’s been a hard weekend. I need something like that to cheer me up, definitely.”

GM: Mr. Clay leans up against the door-jamb. “Well, come by my office tomorrow at the beginning of your shift, and I’ll lend you my copy.” He pulls his ear again. “How’s your mom taking the breakup with Felicity?”

Kurt: Kurt’s face turns a little sour, but he keeps Mr. Clay’s gaze. “She’s not happy about it at all, honestly,” he admits to his boss. “I feel like she’s taking her side and I am getting lumped with all the blame. What am I supposed to do, really?”

GM: “Become a monster.” Mordecai’s initially severe expression seems to reluctantly break into a grin, like a film’s crudely edited epilogue. “Either that, or make your mother believe Felicity’s become one. Which in the end, my dear boy, is the same thing. The only other option is to endure your mother’s monstrous maternalism.”

The Scarecrow’s owner then steps forward and gives Kurt an awkward tap on the shoulder. “Become a monster or a victim of one, Kurt.” His pink eyes crease without another awkward smile. He then steps back and pats the threshold of the projectionist’s booth with unfeigned affection. “Before you head out, make sure someone cleans up the girls’ restroom. Morgan told me one of the toilets is clogged with a bloody tampon and jujubes.”

Kurt: Kurt pulls another face. “I see you’re already forcing me to take up your advice and be the monster who delegates someone else to do it,” he replies, smiling cheekily. “Thanks, Mr. Clay!”

GM: Mordecai smiles, his bone-pale face crinkling like tissue paper. “Smart lad, and that’s why you’re my favorite. And why I’m willing to lend that VHS tape.”

He starts to leave, but pauses briefly to add, “As for delegation, you might consider Fred Meyers. He called out sick last Sunday without notice, allegedly due to the flu, but Eliot said he was going to a party. But I’ll leave the final call to you, my budding Manster.” He departs with a final, “Sayonara, Kurt.”

Kurt: Kurt and Mr. Clay say their goodbyes and part ways. The young lad is more than happy to take Mr. Clay’s advice and tell Fred Meyers to clean the girl’s toilets, which Kurt surreptitiously takes a Manster-ous glee in so doing.

GM: Unsurprisingly, Fred takes the assignment hard. Especially given who’s giving it. After all, the nineteen-year-old Falls High graduate has been working at the Scarecrow for eight months longer than Kurt. And though he took over Bertha Phelps’ full time position, he’s never earned Mr. Clay’s favor or the authority the ‘adult’ craves–and which Kurt has seemingly swooped in and stolen.

It also doesn’t help that the soft in the middle, brown-haired teenager is already in the middle of cleaning up a giant mess in the foyer–one allegedly started by Kurt’s best friend, Wilson, when the baseball star thought it’d be fun to start a popcorn war while exiting the cinema. He stares down at his younger co-worker, broom and swivel-sweep in his hands. Buttery popcorn litters the floor around him.

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After a long stare, Fred asks disgruntledly, “Why can’t Morgan do it? It’s the girls’ restroom.”

Outside the lobby, Wilson and some other upperclassmen tap on the glass window: “Kuuuuurt….”

“Come out annnnd plaaaayyyy!”

The adolescent antics do not improve Fred’s sour mood.

Kurt: Kurt ignores Fred for a moment, distracted by his friends’ antics. He turns wave at his classmates and taps on the glass with a dorky smile plastered on his face.

He then turns back around to face his co-worker. “What do you mean, Fred?” he asks, chiding the older ‘boy’ jokingly. “You’re not afraid of entering a girls’ bathroom, are you?”

GM: “Don’t be a dic–”, Fred starts to snap back, then stops as a few patrons file out and around the two cinema employees. Behind them, Wilson and his clique continuing their jeering.

“Kuuuuurt!”

“Come plaaaaay with the lost boys!”

“All work and no plaaay makes Kurt a dull boy…”

Several girls amongst the group laugh as Wilson sticks two twizzlers in his mouth as mock vampire teeth. “Kuuuurt….”

Fred gives the glass-pressed crowd a curdled lip, as if he’s trying to decide whether he’s more upset by their rambunctiousness or the fact he’ll probably be the one stuck windexing their faces off the display glass. He turns back to his ‘junior’ colleague. “Come on, Kurt, don’t be an…” He stops again and looks over at the closing down concession stand. “Make Eliot do it…”

Eliot seems to perk up at his name being mentioned. The skinny sophomore finishes swallowing some popcorn dredged from the machine before calling out, his voice cracking a bit, “My mom’s outside waiting for me.”

Around the same time, Morgan exits the employee break room–which is really just a glorified closet– and finishes slinging on a black leather jacket over a hoodie emblazoned with a faded, peeling print of the monster truck, Grave Digger.

GM: Spotting her, Fred calls out, “Morgan, they need someone to clean the ladies’ room.”

She spares a glance towards Kurt, then flicks her razor-blade necklace idly as she keeps walking. “Not my problem, Flintstone, I’m off the clock.” Her pace, however, slows when she spots Wilson and his gang.

Kurt: Kurt smiles at Fred. “I am off the clock, too,” he adds. “Plus, girl cooties scare me.”

GM: Behind the counter, Eliot giggles and half-snorts a popcorn out of his nose.

Fred shoots him a scathing look. When he turns back to Kurt, his expression is no less welcoming.

“Kuuuuuurt….” comes the repeated adolescent calls and laughter from outside.

Kurt: “Thanks, Fred!” Kurt gleefully says. He then turns tail and exits the cinema alongside Morgan before Fred can get a chance to reply.

GM: If Fred replies, Kurt can’t hear it–even if he can feel the older youth’s eye-daggers boring into his back. In contrast, the senior can clearly hear Eliot’s high-pitched chuckle, “Yeah, thanks, Fred!”

“Shut up, dipshit!” Fred all but hisses at the sophomore.

Morgan meanwhile hooks her arm around Kurt’s and leans in, the curves of her body and perfume almost deafening compared to her words: “Still afraid of girl cooties?”

Morgan doesn’t wait for his answer as she bites his ear and whispers, “Get me past the goon squad, and I’ll owe you one, scarecrow…”

Seeing–but not hearing–Morgan, Wilson’s gang goes bananas. “Kuuuuuurt!” Wilson drops his licorice fangs and leaps atop a trashcan, beating his chest like a manic chimpanzee–shorn of hair and covered in tats.

Kurt: Kurt quirks a brow at Morgan as she makes a show, unperturbed in the least, pulling Morgan a little closer with a casual smile. He leans into her ear and lets some tension build. “You’re trouble.”

He pulls away, still smiling. “I might be able to distract them if you do me a certain favor.” He’s clearly making a show of things, shamelessly flirting for his own amusement.

GM: Morgan half-stumbles when Kurt pulls away, forcing her to reflexively grab hold of her coworker to avoid falling. The teens outside laugh and jeer. After righting herself, Morgan flicks her hair, and shoots Kurt a look that simmers between hot and boiling. She eyes the manic crowd outside, then returns her gaze to the basketball captain. “You want me to paint your nails again?”

Kurt: “No. What I want is a kiss.”

GM: Morgan eyes Kurt. “That all?”

Kurt: “Why, are you expecting more?” Smirk.

GM: She leans in huskily and fingers the edge of Kurt’s shirt. “Close your eyes, big boy.”

Kurt: Kurt closes his eyes, playing along with the request. He puckers his lips a little too dramatically.

GM: With the roaring hooligans outside, Kurt doesn’t hear anything until he feels a slight touch on his butt–and the sudden tug of his pants pulled down to his knees.

Kurt: Kurt’s eyes snap open in surprise as his pants are pulled down, revealing to Morgan and his onlookers his Dracula-themed underwear.

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Kurt’s face goes scarlet. He quickly pulls his pant back up and looks embarrassed. “You win, Morgan,” he says with the tiniest smile remaining. “Hands down. You win. Or, maybe pants down.”

GM: Given the reaction by the crowd outside and the still-kneeling Morgan, Kurt has little reason to be embarrassed. As she stands, Morgan slips her hand in Kurt’s back pocket. “Maybe we both win,” she says whispering in his ear.

“Count Kuuuuurt!” Wilson shouts with a wide laugh. His entourage follows the chant.

Kurt: Maybe.

“I’ll catch up with you later, Morgan,” Kurt finally says, giving her a pensive look for a couple moments. “I need to catch up with Wilson.”

GM: Behind them, the impressionable underclassman Eliot decides to jump up on the concession stand and pull down his pants, exposing his whitey-tighties and bony knees in all their lanky ‘glory’. “Yeaaahhh!” he yells and shakes his fist.

Just as Mordecai walks out into the lobby. “Mr. Glessman, please pull up your pants,” the albino cinema owner says in a thin voice, “And go home.”

Hazel: Attila Awakens


Day ? Month ? Year ?

GM: Hazel stares into the west-rising eye of dawn. It winks, and she finds herself inside the chamber. It is the third porridge, neither too vast nor too minuscule, neither too dark nor too bright. It is neither too right nor too wrong. It is a mixture of all these things, yet none of them. A meeting place. A road crossed or cross of roads. It is the chamber.

Four chairs reside in the chamber. They reside. They deign neither to sit nor stand. They are neither on the ceiling nor on the walls. The chamber has neither ceiling nor walls.

There is a portal that is neither a door nor a window, neither many nor one. It is neither closed nor open, allowing neither ingress nor egress. But it is in the chamber. It is a looking glass, of things within and without.

Four pictures are in the chamber. They neither hang upon the wall nor rest upon the floor for there is neither floor nor walls. But within the chamber, they are. Four in number.

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Hazel: Theorem 17. The transition from outer to inner mysteries? Possibly. It is here that Dee wrote the transformation of shape took place, between three-dimensional and four-dimensional geometry, between simple Hebrew and true Enochian.

She approaches the looking-glass. Does she walk further, or does it draw closer—or was it always there? Is there even a difference?

GM: “It makes a difference,” responds the black cat that creeps through the gap in the looking glass. It lazily regards Hazel, its twin-black pupils the hue of sleeping computer monitors.

Hazel: “You are correct. There is power in words and definitions,” she replies to the cat. “Even if the concept is mutable, definition and structure must exist in the language itself.”

GM: The cat rubs itself against Hazel’s leg, yearningly.

Hazel: She smiles and bends down to stroke its fur. She’s always liked cats. It was such a shame she could never have one in Witiko Falls.

GM: The creature begins to purr in satisfaction, though Hazel notes its sound is more akin to a computer booting up.

Hazel: “Would you feel undignified if I spoke to you with traditional cat speech?” she inquires, wanting to be polite. But the familiar boot-up sound draws her gaze to its eyes.

GM: The cat’s black pupils grow wide, filling its eyes. Lights flicker on in colors without names. But the colors make up words whose names she knows.

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Hazel: A frown creases her features. “Within the waking world, yes. Within my mind… no. Am I dreaming?”

GM: The cat continues to purr and curl its lazily spiraling tail around Hazel’s leg. “You are dreaming. You are not dreaming,” it responds. “But you must choose.” It glances to the four chairs.

Hazel: Hazel obliges it and moves to scratch the bottom of its chin and behind its ears. She knows all the spots they like. “I had presumed so. Those statements may not coexist.”

GM: None of the chairs are whole, but one in particular looks dismantled, weathered, and rotting. Another appears inchoate, still peppered with sawdust from incomplete manufacture. Another sits completely still, while the fourth wanders in the chamber. “You may sit for a spell,” replies the cat, purring in loud, computer-esque bliss.

Hazel: “Is this gap in the door a pathway to the waking world? Or further into the dreaming?” she inquires, eying the chairs.

GM: “Depends on the door. But first the chair, then the door.”

Hazel: “Very well. You may sit on my lap if you wish,” she replies, moving to pick up the cat if it doesn’t object. She considers the chairs for a moment. There is a choice here. As in all things.

GM: The cat contentedly or at least lazily obliges. As Hazel’s hands sink into the space-black fur, her fingers touch a previously hidden collar of gold. A name-tag bears a minute inscription. On the facing side, it reads: If you have heard anything concerning the nuptials of the King, consider these words. By us the Bridegroom offers you a choice between four ways, all of which, if you do not sink down in the way, can bring you to his royal court.

Flipping it over, the obverse bears another inscription: Choose now which one you will of the four, and persevere constantly therein, for know whichever you will enter, that is the one destined for you by immutable Fate, nor can you go back in it save at great peril to life. These are the things which we would have you know. But, ho, beware! you know not with how much danger you commit yourself to this way, for if you know yourself to be obnoxious by the smallest fault to the laws of our King, I beseech you, while it is still possible, to return swiftly to your house by the way you came.

Noticing Hazel’s reading, the cat replies, “It was miswritten. You can’t trust anything written on a collar. Least of all a cat’s.”

Hazel: Hazel offers the cat a sad little smile. “I think I’m in a lot of trouble already.” It gives way to a look of resolve. “Perhaps not, but I know the message to be true. No power without price.”

GM: The feline closes its eyes, silent save for the electric vibration of its purr. The chamber, with its pictures and chairs, awaits.

Hazel: “And perhaps I shall invite more trouble upon myself. I realize and accept that price.” Hazel moves to sit upon the stationary, intact, hale, chair. Her choice is only logical. It is the most stable and dependable of all the furniture upon which she may sit. It’s a moment before she realizes that she’s holding her breath as she does.

GM: As Hazel does so, one of the four pictures springs to life. The cat’s purr changes like a movie theater projection cueing up, and she feels a black heat from the feline’s belly.

Hazel: She continues to stroke its fur, patiently awaiting whatever is to come.

GM: From her vantage upon the still chair, the picture frame seems to transform in Hazel’s mind into a window, which allows her to see beyond the chamber. Through that window, she sees a laundromat. She doesn’t so much as peer inside, as pour.

Hazel: Welcome to the second half of your story, Alice…

GM: The first thing she senses is the overwhelming familiarity of the place. It’s a sensation she’s experienced every time she’s stepped into a laundromat: a sense of sameness that transcends time and space.

Hazel: It’s definitely a place that feels the same anywhere. But truthfully, she hasn’t been inside a laundromat many times. Living with her parents, they had their own laundry machines. In Spokane she used her grandparents’. Cheaper and fewer strangers to interact with. Back home now, she’s still brought over loads of laundry to do at her parents’.

GM: Nonetheless, she recalls how as a young child, the washing machine broke once while living at Lacewood. Harvey took her to Witiko Falls’ local laundromat. She recalls because it was late at night, and while the rest of the town was asleep, the laundromat was… not. It wasn’t alive, either, but it wasn’t asleep. Fluorescent lights filled the laundromat with a unique gray-ish light that was neither cold nor hot. It just was.

Hazel: The late hour at least meant few strangers. That was one thing she recalled, especially as a young child.

GM: And then there were the rows and rows of identical machines. All perfectly lined up. There was the sound of the place. As her father had quipped, “It’s reliable: you can always count on it to be almost empty, but only ‘almost’.” True to his words, there were a few quiet souls there, listlessly dropping in coins, wordlessly switching loads from a washer to the drying machine. One or two who just seemed there.

Hazel: “I don’t want to go through other peoples’ clothes,” her young self had replied.

GM: She didn’t have to. No one spoke with her. Everyone kept to themselves. Their own clothes, their own business.

Hazel: Still. The thought was there, in the back of her mind, agitating her like an itch. “Daddy, can’t we just get our machine fixed?”

GM: “We won’t be here long, kiddo,” he had replied, before he too settled into one of the many empty, rows of chairs. The place was still, or very nearly so. There was movement and sound after all. The rhythmic sound of the laundry machines filled the place. The old TV in the corner, its speakers neither loud nor quiet. It was a static-kind of quiet. Predictable. Inescapable.

Hazel: I don’t see why I had to come, she’d mentally grumbled, but she was here and her dad wouldn’t make a separate trip to take her back. So she settled in and did the only thing she logically could: wait.

GM: It was an empty, breathless kind of waiting, but at least it was a particular kind of waiting without any surprises. Yet, she was surprised years later, when her parents had just moved into the Sisyphus House. Her mother took her back to the laundromat. Her mother had ordered all-new appliances for the house, but the out-of-town delivery truck was late by several days. Harvey had suggested they simply go back to Lacewood to do their laundry until the new machines arrived. Lydia, however, was adamant that their move would be a move forward. So she had hauled her daughter and their week’s worth of laundry to the local laundromat.

Hazel: Hazel had been a much more vocal complainer that time. “Moooom, we can use Gramps’ and Nana’s! It is less money! I don’t want to go! It is illogical!”

GM: Her mother had tried to console her that it was a new laundromat. That the old one had gone out of business, and a new one had opened a few streets down. That it would be different. But it wasn’t. It was exactly the same. Same rows, same rattle, same near-emptiness, same waiting, same chemicals, same smells, same gray light. Same static.

Hazel: “Why are we paying more money not to see Gramps and Nana! It is illogical!” the five-year-old had repeated with growing frustration.

GM: The few other patrons were different. But they weren’t really. Not truly. They wore the same expressions, the same fatigue and sisyphean, listless perseverance.

Hazel: “I don’t want to be here! I want to see Gramps and Nana!” she had continued to complain.

GM: The quarters they slowly slid into the machines probably had different mint dates. Probably. But it was the same pattern. Same clink. Same click. Same whir. Same clunk. Again and again. A spiraling cycle that had the paper-thin illusion of change. A pattern of permanence.

Hazel: She was five. She’d started to cry.

GM: It was the third time that cemented the pattern forever in her mind. The third time was during a trip home from college. She and her mother had locked horns again. Another all-too reliable pattern. Hazel had wanted someone to drive her the whole trip. Lydia wanted to promote independence, or at least de-incentivize the girl’s lack of interest in working and saving for a car.

Caught between that immovable object and unstoppable force, Harvey had ‘compromised’ by driving Hazel half-way, then dropping her off at a local bus stop, where she caught the connection that took her the rest of the way to Spokane. Despite leaving hours ahead of schedule, they still had missed her departure time. “The roads have a will of their own, pumpkin,” Harvey had said in casual apology.

But despite that apology, he had refused to drive Hazel the rest of the way–likely from the ear-splitting ream he received after using a payphone to call and inform Lydia. Deflated, Harvey nevertheless waited with Hazel until the next bus came.

Hazel: “Stand up to her, Daddy! You’re divorced, and driving me under these circumstances is not unreasonable!” Hazel had fumed.

GM: It was Hazel’s casual or at least unequivocal way of proclaiming he and her mother were divorced that seemed to be the last knife in his emotional tires. He did wait with her though until the next bus came.

Hazel: “If you don’t want to listen to her ranting, just hang up!” Hazel had continued to press.

GM: “Enough, Hazel,” he had said tiredly as he slumped over to the laundromat to settle in for the hours-long wait. “Some things, you just can’t change.”

Hazel: “Yes, that’s clearly true,” she had replied saltily.

GM: Whether she followed him in because she wanted to continue to argue or because eventually she got cold out in the open bus stop, she found herself inside her third laundromat, this time in Coer d’Alene. And despite the significant passage of time and space, the laundromat was the same. Around and around. Around and around. Around and around.

That sameness strikes her senses now. The predictable familiarity. The mass-produced, cheap chemicals. The rows of used washers and dryers. The occasional, listless slink of quarters and buzz of winding down machines mingling with the slurry of TV static and clunking whirring. The few figures are faceless. For most, that facelessness is figurative, an indifference in their eyes and posture that makes their features too boring or bland to attend to or remember. Yet, for one, the facelessness is all too literal.

He sits in one of the otherwise empty rows of chairs. His clothes are clean, but rumpled from a heavy day of toil and drudgery. His white dress shirt is wrinkled, half-unbuttoned here and there as if comfort was sought and then abandoned. His business tie is similarly loosened, yet still around his neck like a noose made of dark bland fabric printed with a subdued, generic geometric pattern. His slacks and shoes are unremarkable. He doesn’t so much sit as he slumps. He’s waiting. Of course. Indeed, he would be utterly unremarkable in a laundromat, save for his literal headlessness.

Or, as Hazel soon realizes, his lack of a head attached to his shoulders. For behind him, Hazel sees the figure’s face stuck inside a glass-windowed washing machine. The head tumbles around and around. Clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk.

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“We’ve been waiting,” the figure’s voice says tiredly in a monotone voice barely audible above the cycle of laundromat machines. “But we knew you would come. It was predictable. The only logical choice.”

Hazel: Hazel sits down across from him. She’s not sure whether to look at his head or his body. “Yes. It was logical. The other chairs were either unfinished or inconvenient to sit upon.” Her eyes drift between his headless torso and the spinning washing machine.

GM: The bifurcated figure gives no offense at the uncertainty or vacillation of Hazel’s gaze. “Structure is necessary.” In the corner, a faceless, though not headless figure clicks through the TV. Every station is static.

Hazel: “We are in agreement, as evidenced by my presence. What is now to come?”

GM: The figure looks to the cat on Hazel’s lap–or at least seems like he’s looking at the cat. Eye contact is atypical when one’s eyes are inside a washing machine.

Hazel is far more sure of the cat’s gaze as it peers up at her. Its pupils remain glassy, vacuous fish-globe orbs. The ineffable lights therein shift and flicker into new shapes, transmitting a new missive.

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The cat’s voice, however, has its typical feline languidness as it speaks, “You may try all four chairs. Only one can be chosen.”

Hazel: “I believe my choice made, but to gather more data is to make a better-informed choice. I shall ‘try’ sitting upon further chairs.”

GM: “Choice is an illusion,” the laundromat figure replies.

Clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk.

Hazel: She looks towards the cat.

GM: “We’ve been waiting. We will be waiting. We are predictable,” adds the face inside the washing machine.

Clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk.

Hazel: “As am I,” Hazel replies blandly.

GM: “We are the same.”

Clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk.

Before Hazel can reply, the cat suddenly bits her arm, drawing blood. Hazel is back within the chamber, no longer sitting. The cat licks its paws, unapologetically.

Hazel: She rubs her arm, stifling an instinctive glare at the cat. No data—knowledge—without price. She picks the feline back up and sits down on the decaying chair. Gingerly. It may not support her weight.

GM: The arcane process unravels, but its destination is far from the same. This time, Hazel finds herself in what initially seems like the backyard of Abby Sormurson.

While a student of Eugene Baker Elementary, Hazel had been tag-teamed by her mother, father, and teacher into doing a group science project. Her assigned partner was Abby Sormurson, best friend of Mackenzie Pinkston. It was fiasco doomed on all levels.

Hazel: It was a fiasco. And Hazel was determined to drag “that bitch’s” friend down with her.

GM: As summer approached, the literal and figurative heat intensified, with animosity and frustration felt by all sides, including her parents, Abby’s parents, both children, and their teacher. The latter threatened summer school if the girls didn’t jointly produce a final project. The assignment was to do some artistic display, such as a mobile or poster, on a prominent scientist.

Abby had wanted to do Thomas Edison. “We’ll draw a lightbulb and be done!”

Hazel: “I work better alone.” Teachers and parents alike heard that phrase countless times.

“Edison was essentially a plagiarist and nowhere near as brilliant as people thought. He got famous from his patents,” Hazel had crossly replied. “Nikola Tesla was the real genius. You’re an idiot if you think they’ll be happy with just a lightbulb. They want a poster. You’re also an idiot for thinking Edison is a praiseworthy scientist, so I suppose your behavior is at least consistent in its mental deficiency.”

GM: “Well, uh, you smell like nasty tuna fish pee!” One of them, after all, had the developmental level of an elementary student. Which of the two girls was more mature, however, was a point of contention, and as the summer approached that contention only grew.

Hazel: Tuna pee? Oh, you have no idea what you’ve just brought on.

Hazel felt the wrath boiling within her. She didn’t want to do a group project. She didn’t want to do it with Abby. They thought they could force her? Make her put up with this simpleton?

“This is a nonproductive use of my time. I have no desire to remain in these surroundings. I belong in them as much as dog feces belongs on a carpet. MRS. SORMURSSSOOOONNNNNN!!!!!!!!” the ten-year-old Hazel abruptly screamed at the top of her lungs, trying to get the mother’s attention.

GM: The attention of the one mother and then the other was surely gotten, and the exchanges between Mrs. Sormurson and then-Mrs. Bauman rivaled their daughters’, leading to the disintegration of a decade-long book club and a rather public spate featuring a well-thrown custard pie during the school’s end-of-the-year bake sale. It’s unlikely the armistice would have been reached by the more level-headed adults had not a psychotic moose killed a tourist hiker and tried to break into Mrs. Gunderson’s house.

Hazel: Hazel wasn’t sure as to the cause of their mothers’ enmity. She didn’t care. Another weapon in her arsenal was another weapon in her arsenal. Summer school gradually began to seem less and less undesirable.

GM: And then far less palatable, to both the children and their parents, when the principal Superintendent Atwood decreed the girls’ summer school would consist of multiple science projects together–unless they turned in a passable project by the last day of school.

Eventually, the adults decided to flip a coin, roll dice, or some similar measure to arbitrarily pick a science figure for the girls’ project. So it was that Abby and Hazel spent the last afternoon before school ended doing a visual display on Rudolf Clausius. A heat wave had slammed into Witiko Falls, which left the Bauman’s AC-less house an oven. Consequently, Hazel’s parents were forced to effectively kidnap, bribe, and blackmail their daughter to go over to Sormurson’s.

Hazel: “I can stay near a fan and read,” was her logical refutation (and protest) to this.

GM: Her parents–keen on dodging heat strokes, much less a prolonged hell of summer school–were less interested in logic. They simply wanted the project to end. By brute force, if need be.

Hazel: Hazel tried. She really did. She wanted to avoid summer school. Told herself that a summer of such science projects was infinitely worse than doing just this one.

But Abby didn’t pull her weight. Hazel swiftly found herself doing the lion’s share of the work—whether out of Abby’s own sloth, or Hazel’s exacting intellectual standards that (as she so relished pointing out) the other girl was incapable of living up to.

“You are as useless as the second ‘shift’ button on a keyboard. I advise that you drop out of high school to become a prostitute, given the vacuity of your mental faculties, poor work ethic, and even poorer choice in current whores as friends. It is an undesirable vocation, but it is no less than you deserve,” the ten-year-old had acidly remarked.

GM: The comment caused Abby to burst into tears, retreating to her mother to tattle on the “fat, smelly bully”. Mrs. Sormurson was swift to confront Hazel.

Hazel: The vindictive girl made no attempt to deny her remarks, but rather showed that she was far from done. Hazel turned to face the crying Abby, and calmly intoned, “You are a bleating dim-witted sheep brought into this world likely by accident—I am certain that sure your conception was the undesired result of a casual liaison upon a sweat-stained yard-sale couch—who will serve no purpose except to steal the oxygen that might fill the lungs of more worthwhile specimens of humanity such as myself. I have a name for such useless masses of barely-cognizant flesh such as you. Oxygen thieves. Summer school is preferable to further time spent in your company. I would sooner fellate a rhinoceros, whose engorged gray member would certainly be a more aesthetically pleasing sight to gaze upon than that tapioca-abortion-in-a-toilet called your face.” The ten-year-old autistic girl didn’t know much about sex, but she did know that bringing it up tended to shock people.

“I detest this science project, almost as much as I detest you personally. You are ill-mannered, ill-bred, overweight, unintelligent, and so many other ‘ills’, ‘overs’, and ‘uns’ that despite my advanced intelligence, I would require the aid of a dictionary to reference your personal shortcomings in their entirety. You are a waste, Abby Sormurson, not of not only of oxygen and humanity, but far more saliently, of my time. Good day. I am departing this foul abode for my parental domicile, by means of bipedal locomotion—your mother may not trouble herself driving me in her motor vehicle. She is welcome for my saving her gas. You are a useless of sack of misspent and ill-conceived sperm that has had the terrible misfortune to breach your mother’s egg and grow into a human being. If I could have replaced that sperm with gasoline at the moment of your conception, thereby preventing you from ever existing and punishing your mother for merely the possibility of your existence, I would have done so. Your existence actively degrades the worthwhileness of the human race. Furthermore, I consider that your soul must be destroyed.” Cato the Elder ended all of his speeches with those words, replacing ‘your soul’ with ‘Carthage’. Abby probably didn’t get the reference, but to Hazel it made perfect sense.

In a similarly archaic but perhaps far more obvious gesture of revulsion, Hazel then made the loudest, most vile facsimile of vomiting her vocal cords could produce—gross bodily functions are another way to engender disgust—and hacked a gigantic glob of spit onto the ground at Abby’s feet.

“Also, I did all the work on this project.” She then promptly turned to leave the house.

GM: Or tried to, as the beet-faced Mrs. Sormurson smacked Hazel across the face, then effectively tossed her outside into the fenced back yard like a mangy stray who had soiled an expensive rug.

Hazel: Hazel had shouted back the entire time, “Go ahead, physically manhandle me! That’s battery! My mother’s a lawyer, my father’s the county undersheriff, and we are significantly richer than you! Manhandle me! I dare you!”

GM: “You’re nothing but a spoiled brat!” the woman had yelled as she latched the door, then went on to call Hazel’s parents to demand they pick up their “hellspawn.”

Outside, the air was like a full-blast hair dryer. The grass was burnt-brittle. A small kettle grill sat off to the side, a ways off from some sun-splintering corn-hole boards and fraying beanbags. Otherwise, Hazel’s ‘pen’ was empty save her fellow ‘inmate’.

Kerne, a foreign exchange student who had been hosted by the Sormursons. Older and taller than Hazel, he had been dressed in dark jeans with rolled-up cuffs; black boots; and a long-sleeve, button-down dress-shirt. A field journal rested in his hands. A paper grocery bag lay at his feet.

“I am doing an… experiment,” the youth had said in an odd accent. He then tapped the bag with his boot. The bag jerked, violently. A low hiss and growl issued from inside the stapled grocery bag–a bag that Hazel had slowly realized was doused in lighter fluid. By that time, Kerne had already lit and dropped the match.

“Abby said you like cats.”

Now, Hazel can once again hear the raw, animalistic screaming. She smells the flames, the smoke, the stench of burning hair and flesh. The yard is as it was that blistering day, a field of burnt-brittle grass. The fence, however, feels thinner, as if it aged, weathering before her eyes. Behind that fence, the neighbor’s house slowly takes on the appearance of the pox, as its white aluminum siding begins to turn a rust-eaten red and brown. The yard is empty save for Kerne’s figure. He wears the same clothes, save for one addition. He wears the burning paper grocery bag over his head. The torrent of flames and smoke rise thick in the heat-choked air.

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DESTROY THEM,” the burning figure says in a voice that growls, hisses, and screams. “THEY ARE STEALING YOUR OXYGEN. THIEVES.”

The burning figure steps closer. The flames turn a lurid, greasy green that is too viscous and waxy for normal flames. “THEY ARE TRYING TO SUFFOCATE YOU. SUFFOCATE THE TRUTH.”

THEY ARE A WASTE,” the figure says, echoing Hazel’s words as it continues to speak in a voice of burning growls, hisses, and fiery torment. “USELESS. MISSPENT. ILL-CONCEIVED. WE SHOULD REPLACE THEM WITH GASOLINE. I CAN BE YOUR MATCH. THEIR EXISTENCE ACTIVELY DEGRADES THE WORTHWHILENESS OF THE HUMAN RACE.”

It raises its arms, as if to welcome Hazel in an embrace. The burning bag jerks and shudders desperately, frantically as it burns and burns and burns.

THEIR SOULS MUST BE DESTROYED.”

Hazel: Hazel couldn’t have fought the older boy. Even if he wasn’t bigger than her, she was always small and weak for her own age. She remembers staring at the flaming sack with simultaneous shock, horror, and loathing—then grabbing the backyard’s garden hose, spraying its life-saving waters over the burning feline, all while yelling about the “savage ways of barbarian foreigners!”

She’d have lost any resultant physical altercation. But so long as water was sprayed over the cat, his experiment was foiled. She screamed and hollered the most filthy insults she could imagine at Abby’s mother, calling her a “vacant-minded broodmare”, “two-penny whore pretending to be a mother, whose neanderthalic parenting style shall produce another whore”, and “couch-fornicating vindication of Salvor Hardin’s dialogue in Foundation! Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent, you evolutionary throwback! Your underdeveloped cranium comprehends no language save force, so I have little doubt that your own conception—and your mongrel-blooded spawn’s—was the result of rape, you atavistic subhuman! You deserved to be raped, and I hope you die of an infectious disease!”

She even toyed with spraying Abby’s mom with the hose, but as tempting as that might have been, she confined herself to ‘mere’ insults. She tattled to her parents as soon as they picked her up, explaining everything. Abby did none of the project’s work, Hazel insulted her, Abby’s mom confronted her, Hazel spewed further insults, Abby’s mom physically hit her, and then… well, everything else, but hopefully including more hitting from Abby’s mom after she rose to that bait. Hazel relished photographing her bruised face and urging her cop father and lawyer mother to pursue all manner of civil and criminal avenues of legal attack. Hazel was very confident they could win without even going to court. ‘All’ she did was say nasty things. This might even have been the leverage they needed to strong-arm the superintendent.

Whether her parents sought redress from Mrs. Sormurson, or not, however, Hazel made very plain her next intentions—she would not work on this or any other science project with Abby. If she was forcibly partnered with the other girl, she would not only refuse to do the work, she would make it her personal mission to belittle Abby to the point of tears every single class. Her objective was no longer to avoid more schoolwork. It was to deny and defy Superintendent Atwood’s objective of making her interact with Abby Sormurson in any capacity, and to prove that her will could not be suborned in this matter.

Nearly fourteen years later, Hazel looks up at the shrieking, burning sack and the dark-garbed figure who is its architect. Her instinctive revulsion is still there. But her voice is level as she replies,

“When I was a child, and younger than I was at the time of this incident, I watched an episode of Star Trek where Captain Kirk is split into two different selves. His lower half is id personified: cruel, savage, impatient, and heedless of any concern besides its own immediate gratification. Kirk’s higher self, however, is not bettered by this platonic split. His higher self proves soft-hearted, indecisive, weak-willed, and ultimately ineffectual in its pursuit of its moral aims. Mr. Spock offers—as always—a logical explanation for why the two selves must be rejoined: man’s darker and destructive tendencies, when leashed like a muzzled hound and guided by morality’s attentive hand, may be directed towards more productive ends.”

Hazel pets the non-burning cat in her arms. “My own destructive tendencies, inherited in large part from my mother, have worked to my personal benefit. My asociality and peculiar mannerisms as a child would have made me subject to much bullying if I had lacked the resolve to stand up for myself. My ruthless and self-centered impulses are a valuable part of who I am. I do not doubt that they will be necessary in the times ahead.”

“And yet,” she remarks slowly, “I am certain that my ten-year-old self’s actions caused much… unpleasantness,” she finally settles on, “for my parents, during an already trying and unpleasant summer. Perhaps it would have been better if I had simply swallowed my pride, done the school assignment, and allowed Abby Sormurson to write her name on it. An unfortunate side effect of my neurological condition is that empathy for the feelings and well-being of others does not come easily to me.”

“That is why I must make a conscious and deliberate effort to temper my darker tendencies with conscience and discipline—lest they grow out of control, just as a bonfire meant to warm might blaze into an inferno when left unchecked. As I lack empathy, it is through my intellect that I must turn my darker tendencies, such as they are, towards constructive purpose.”

Her face softens. “Such as the happiness and well-being of my parents. I did not initially realize that ‘making nice’ to Mrs. Worwood would be an effective means of vengeance against her. My concern at the time was for easing the strain upon my father’s job. Tempering myself for his sake… felt like the right thing to do. Certainly, he appeared thankful afterwards.”

Hazel shakes her head. “I do not claim to be a paragon of virtue, or even of filial devotion. I am often ruled by my vindictiveness and desire to avenge perceived slights. But I do not believe this is an aspect of my personality that needs to be further encouraged. Its place is as the muzzled hound, not the leash-bearing hand. And your words are those of a ten-year-old, however erudite her vocabulary.”

She looks down towards the cat in her grown self’s arms and braces herself for another bite. “I am ready to depart.”

GM: Before the cat can respond, the burning figure rushes forward. As it does so, the grass withers to ash. Rust overtakes the neighborhood houses, causing them to implode like the House of Usher. The wooden fence also violently rots away into splinters, further exposing the ruined hell-scape whose very sky starts to burn as the sun becomes blood-red and starts to crash to the earth.

That scene, however, is blotted out by another terrible sight, as the figure grabs Hazel’s head with its hands leans close as if to whisper. It doesn’t. It screams. The sound of the thrashing, burning bag is deafening. The heat so hot, Hazel feels like her eyes are starting to evaporate. The waxen smoke worming its way into her mouth. The growl-wail-scream proclaims, once more twisting Hazel’s own words: “VIOLENCE! BONFIRE BLAZE INTO AN INFERNO!”

Dark images start to appear in the asphyxiating, poisonous smoke. A wooden puppet with fanged teeth waiting under her bed. Faceless Spooks watching as two beasts pull Lydia apart into ribbons of sinew and blood. Mackenzie Snakewater smiling as she locks Hazel into an asylum.

VENGEANCE! RULED BY VINDICTIVENESS. DESIRE TO AVENGE!”

So close, Hazel can taste the smoke on her tongue, in her mouth, a savory apocalypse that crashes through her subconscious like the plummeting, bloody sun. As terrible, ineffable revelations sear the dark corners of her psyche, the figure finally ends the distance between them with a last, burning kiss that seems like a promise, if not curse.

YOU ALWAYS CHOOSE ME… IN THE END

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Story One, Chapter Thirteen

Brook: Skin Deep


Thursday night, 9 October 1998

GM: Brook awakens on the ground. All around him is the stench of burnt ozone. His head feels like it was struck by a sledgehammer, and his ears keep ringing with a warble and screech akin to an endless dial-up tone.

Brook: Brook’s eyes snap open, realizing in a second what’s just happened. Something that has never happened to him. He lost consciousness while the moon was high in the sky. He jerks up, panicking, grabs the back of his chair and hoists it up like a spear against the room around him. He sniffs the air and then slides his back against the desk. There’s nothing. Last he remembers he was looking at the clock and then–oh no.

The scared teen shoves his hands into his pockets, checking for the wrapped-up dollar bill as he checks the clock. He has to still have time to get that work done. Maybe after he unplugs the phone.

GM: The clock is dead. Everything is dead. Except him. He thinks. It’s pitch back. Rain patters on the windows.

Brook: Lightning. Fucking lightning? That’s bullshit, after so many years Red Aspen has either slacked on its electrical work or whatever hit them wasn’t a normal bolt of lightning. But it fits. Everything going black right when he answered a phone. Maybe it’s his fault.

Fumbling, Brook makes his way down to the main floor and feels in the dark for his bag. Of course the flashlight is dead. But as he fumbles to a cupboard, he finds more than enough candles, and a box of matches. Count on his mother to be prepared. But after everything that’s happened today? It’s time to just… stop for awhile. Brook lights a candle and carries it into his bedroom, grabs his guitar and carries it up into the tower. He keeps only two candles on his desk, so he can see himself and his work.

But he pushes it out of his mind. One song. The rain is perfect. One song to cool his nerves. He mounts the guitar on his knee as he sits and squeezes his hand to loosen it up, and gives a tentative strum. Maybe it’s not the time, but after so many years of art and music as a means to cope, he needs it right now.
GM: Brook’s eyes play tricks on him. Blinding after-images. Serpent-like shadows or lightning bolts mingle with the red–orange candle flames. When another bolt of lightning arcs across the sky, Brook feels his muscles twitch involuntarily, causing the musical chord to fray like a downed power–line. His windowless bedroom, however, provides a relative respite from the storm which ranges outside. And eventually, the after-images and echoes subside.

Brook: Brook grits his teeth at the sudden twitch, and a low growl of self-frustration brews in the base of his throat as he sets the instrument down. It’s not working, and the strange upside-down feeling in his gut is still there from the shock of sleep at night. Is it the phone? The lightning? The boy suppresses a growl, pockets the matches and extinguishes all but one candle, then slowly creeps up into the tower. He has to grab what’s left of his homework.

GM: True to Danny’s jib, geometry and trigonometry are not Brook’s best subjects. However, his friend’s notes provide a vital lifeline as he struggles through his homework. The first half requires him to calculate the angles of different regular polygons. When he gets to the pentagon, he pulls out his sketchpad he made, recalling something Mr. Epstein said about the degrees. By the time he’s done the first portion, he’s pretty sure he got enough items correct.

The second half is in one of those larger word problems from the book called ‘practical applications’. Tonight’s exercise, at least, begins with a photo of the Summa Vitiorum, a thirteenth century monastic illustration, depicting an armored knight with a shield bearing the “sacred geometry” of the Scutum Fidei, or Shield of the Triarchic God.

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Brook reads over the paragraph explaining the symbol’s religious history and a quote by Plato asserting that “God geometrizes continually”. The actual math problem itself requires the calculation of each angle of the Scutum Fidei. The math problem proves a bit harder for Brook, and by the time he’s done, or at least gives up, he’s neither sure he computed the correct number or degrees of the angles. Regardless, the math is done.

Brook: Brook concedes that math isn’t his best subject, but it’s a thin enough line between him and expulsion that he’s willing to even brave whatever the fuck has just happened up in the top floor of his tower to get it done. His earlier muscle twitch, as the thunder rumbled through the world, still eats at the back of his mind. He works hard under the candle light, his pen slitting across the paper as he gets the first portion done. That’s when things get strange, or at least stranger than normal. He doesn’t give in, he does his best, and when he’s done it’s like a wave over him. But it’s not relief as normal.

GM: Agent Barnes, do the math.

Do The Math.

The words reappear like a summoned ghost. He looks back at his sheets of paper, the protractor, calculator, and rest of the candlelit supplies as if he’s forgetting something. Something important.

Do The Math.

The epiphany strikes him as sudden and blinding as the lightning bolts that crackle through the sky. The pentagram. He grabs the nearby maps. He has to be sure. It only takes him few moments to confirm his suspicion.

Five points. Five fires. They match perfectly, not just in number but in precise distance from one another. Somehow the rangers and marshals all missed it. Brook looks back to his sketchpad. No, not five points. Six points, the sixth being in the grand center of the pentagram. A few calculations later, and Brook has found the sixth site. One where no fire has burned. Yet.

Scratch’s Corral. A box-canyon not too far away from Baker’s Cudgel, the dead-end gorge has an old dirt–track trail originally made by nineteenth century cattle rustlers and restored nearly a century later by conspiracy–secessionists in the 1969. Looking at the maps, Brook comes to six disconcerting conclusions. Six. Just like the pentagram. Six points. Six lines. Six words. Six.

First, the homicidal asylum escapee, Moses Ezekiel MacDonald, is either already in or heading to Scratch’s Corral.

Second, Moses is angry, and before the sun rises, he’s going to try to give ‘the Devil a foothold’ likely through some satanic ritual that will doubtlessly involve atrocities against another.

Third, all of the NPS rangers are patrolling public park trails, and thus are nowhere close to the off-limit box canyon.

Fourth, with all of Red Aspen’s electronics fried, Brook cannot alert the proper authorities.

Fifth, even if he could, they wouldn’t be able to reach them, not in time, and maybe not at all, as the Corral’s trail is too narrow for cars and trucks. Dirt bikes are another matter.

Sixth, and most importantly, if someone is going to stop Moses MacDonald, it’s going to be Brook.

Do the math

Brook: Do the math.

The earlier gnawing in his head takes a back seat to a new set of teeth chewing on his brain, until tooth meets tooth and sparks like flint in his gray matter. Brook shoots up, sending his chair to the floor as he pulls a map off the wall and slaps it on the table. Everything lines up. Everything makes itself known. The fires giving everyone trouble have been arson every time. That sick shit-painting fuck.

More realizations mount on, more and more, until it makes sense. Do the math. Do his job. Hunt. Brook bolts back down the ladder onto the first floor, races to his hook on the wall and pulls on his gear. Boots, outdoor camouflage clothing, his boonie hat, and his pocketed vest are soon all tightened up and ready. As his hands move into a blur, he realizes this feels unlike most hunts he’s been on. This feels like war. There is animosity in his movements and an eager shiver in his chest cavity. He’s excited. Maybe to be racing to the rescue, or maybe to be on the hunt for what he is.

His guns, his bow, his arrows, his gloves, and his backpack survival kit. Brook arms himself to the teeth, even hiding his revolver in its holster under his brown- and green-patterned coat, violating a law. The adrenaline-high teen grabs his keys and hesitates for only a moment as he runs back and pulls a loaded flare gun out from the supplies box. Brook bursts out the door like a movie hero, sending gravel flying as he sprints down to the station shed. His project sits right next by. It’s a piece of pride for him and a guilty pleasure akin to the Mooners. He rips the cover off to reveal his dirt bike: it’s not much of a looker, but it’s something he’s proud of. It takes only one smooth kickstart before the lamp flicks on and the ranger cadet is on his war-path. His green eyes stare unblinkingly focused ahead as he makes his way to Scratch’s Corral.

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GM: Outside, the storm rages. The forest feels alive, awoken by the thunderstorm booming and crawling above and between the mountain slopes and valleys. Cold, fat ran smashes down on Brook and his dirt-bike, making the gravel trail and muddy drop-offs treacherous. The blackness of night is cut through by lightning. They alternately resemble horned snakes slithering across the umbral Sky–Country or white–hot arteries and veis on thin–skinned flesh of some ineffable monstrosity looming over the world to swallow it. The staccato flash of blinding white and black create a blurring wash of false gray that distorts color, shape, and time.

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Yet, despite the nightmarish driving conditions, Brook rides on, fast and unfettered. Instincts take off, and rational thought slides into some unused, unneeded corner of his mind. These are his woods after all. His home. His territory. Some atavistic will guides him in the dark. The primeval power, however, has a cost, as somewhere in chiaroscuro cacophony, Brook’s hold on the present washes away like the rain-water down the ride.

One moment, he’s riding white–knuckled down Ksah-koom-aukie’s Breast, and the next, he’s rousing from his dark dissociation, his bike still gunning through the nigh–hidden, person–wide entrance into Scratch’s Corral.

Brook: Once again, the young hunter’s forest feels as though it can swallow him alive or push him safely into what he seeks. It chooses. Brook’s mind goes blank as he pushes forward, if anything traveling faster and faster as his heart rate rises. Right up until he bursts through the entrance into the box canyon. Scratch’s Corral, the stage. Either for his death or his successful hunt is yet to be seen. He barrels through on his bike as the world comes back into focus, making his teeth grit and his chest quiver. He still doesn’t slow much. He begins his search, his hunt, racking his brain for places the rain won’t reach. Where he can find a rat.

GM: Brook’s mind doesn’t have to rake long. Only two years ago–in the wake of Ms. Littlebeaver’s shocking suicide–Danny and Brook had camped out in Scratch’s Corral, attempting a desperate teenage vision quest in the hopes of contacting Danny’s ancestors. During that troubled trip, the boys had found an old cave formerly used by rustlers, grizzles, and most recently by militant secessionists, who employed the natural bunker as an arms and ammo depot and locale of their last, lethal stand against the joint task force of ATF, NPS, and FBI in the ‘70s. Other than the cave of the box canyon–which was cleared out by the federal forces–there are thick copses fed by vein-like waterfalls and Auld Coot’s Creek.

Brook: Brook doesn’t wait for a better place to come into his head. He heads for the cave and slows his pace. His original plan of running down the psycho with his bike is out the window, but this place is at least a start. Soon the hunter calms his war ride, slowing to a stop and sliding off his bike a few meters from the mouth of the cave. He takes the keys and slides them into a pocket inside of his vest to keep them silent, and hefts his bow, notching an arrow as he keeps low and makes his approach. Tracks will tell him what he needs, the cave at least not in the washing rain.

GM: As Brook stalks toward the cave, a forked lightning bolt rips through the sky like Uktena’s tongue. For a brief, terrible moment, the young man is once again struck both blind and deaf. Absent those senses, Brook’s mind looks back to the past, when he and his best friend first visited Scratch’s Corral.

Tuesday afternoon, 2 July 1996

GM: It’s hot as hell. The circumstances spurring the boy’s camp-out and desperate vision quest were already grueling, but the heat makes everything worse. And it’s only getting worse.

When they had arrived two days prior, it was unseasonably warm and dry. When Mary dropped them off at the entrance with all their supplies, there had at least been a little mountain breeze to wick off the sweat. However, once the boys descended into the box canyon, that wind suffocated like a cat trapped inside a shrink-wrapped shoebox.

At first, the mind-numbing heat, sweat, and exertion of hauling their supplies and setting up camp had been good. Danny hadn’t wanted to speak, and honestly Brook wasn’t sure what to say. How do you comfort your best friend right after his mother jumped out of a third-story hospital window and left him and all his siblings de facto orphans? So the stifling heat seemed like a blessing. But the blessing soon turned into a curse. It was like the box canyon was a giant cauldron and someone kept adding more timber to the fire.

The second day, the temperature climbed. Brook and Danny had tried to sweat it out, to use the pain and discomfort as a cleansing experience to guide them in their search for peace or at least answers. But the brutal sun just baked them and scorched any chance of spiritual solace. Danny especially suffered. Unlike the atypically tall, muscular ranger cadet who lives and works in this unforgiving wilderness, the comparatively short, scrawny pre-teen spends more time inside playing Duke Nukem, Zork, and his most recent favorite, Quake.

Seeing his friend endure the brutal weather so much better than he could certainly didn’t improve Danny’s mood or already tormented emotional focus. Today has been little better. Actually, it’s been a hell of a lot worse. As Brook checks his NPS thermometer–not for the first time–he sees the red mercury top 102 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s literally boiling.

After hearing Red Aspen’s forecast for today from Brook’s walkie-talkie, Danny had declared that he was done with the “crackpot sweat-lodge”. At the same time, he hadn’t wanted to run home crying, either. After all, home didn’t really exist for him any more. Not like it had. Going back would simply mean confronting harsh realities.

So Danny had decided to stay in the cave, hiding from the sun and its cruel heat. Brook isn’t sure whether the darkness has improved his best friend’s black mood.

Brook: While he can’t match it to his best friends, it has been a painful year for the young man. After the incident he’s not allowed to speak of, his body has been changing. He wakes up in pain, his body screaming at him for no reason. His temper flaring at odder and odder times despite his promise to reign himself in. His dreams changing to worse and stranger motifs, much to his awkwardness seeing the girls they involve the next day. He’s grown too, his arms bulging, his appetite demanding much from him.

Danny has been here for him though, the entire time. It’s only common sense once his mother fell to her death, that he reveal what he’s been studying. What they can try to find his ancestors for answers, like his bigger friend is looking for in the waters of the Green Lady. But it’s not going how they want. Brook of course follows his friend I to the cave, taking off his boonie hat and siting beside Danny in the dark awhile. “Are you okay? Do you need more water?” It’s all Brook can think to say. It’s painfully awkward, but it’s better than wallowing in the dark.

GM: Danny doesn’t reply–at least not in a way Brook can see. In the harsh sunlight that reaches but fails to grasp the back of the cave, the ranger cadet can barely make out his friend’s silhouette. Even so, he can tell the silhouette is wrong. But not why.

His friend’s aberrant silhouette moves. There’s a soft movement of stones, then a ‘whiiiish’, followed by the echoing clatter of stone ricocheting against stone. When the echoes die, Danny speaks in a drone-like voice: “…the mouth of Vaults of Zin, and the vindictive ghasts are always on watch there for those denizens of the upper abyss…”

There’s another scrape, whiiish, and distant clatter.

Brook: Brook freezes as soon as he realizes something is wrong. Like a dying biker in the snow, he just listens. Only this time, there’s something in the dark, even as Danny suddenly speaks of mouths and vaults. And another skitter sounds in the darkness. Despite all of it, the young ranger realizes this had to be what they were waiting for. Something is speaking through Danny. Making only very slow motions, Brook removes his hat and puts it down beside him, speaking quietly and carefully. There’s not exactly a script, but he speaks like the people in Mary’s stories, looking at the shadow. “I am Brook. Son of Madcatcher and The Green Lady.”

GM: The strange silhouette turns slowly to face Brook. Danny’s voice speaks:

“Son of two lesbos, eh? That explains a lot.”

Pre-teen snickering echoes in the cave.

Brook: Something is happening. Brooks doesn’t know what but it’s probably what they’ve been working towards. His hair. It’s not how it was. “Close your eyes Danny. I think it’s working finally. You said some…weird stuff.”

GM: “Brooks, I think the sun’s cooked your brains. Not that there was much to cook, after all.” Brook can’t see but can imagine his friend grinning. “Nah, that’s just a line from some Lovecraft. White-ass racist, but he could write some creepy shit. It’s like the base for Quake. Base, inspiration, whatever. Vaults of Zin, my favorite level.” He picks up another rock and wings it, causing another staccato echo of skipping stone on stone. “Those ghasts or fiends, man… scary hard.”

Brook: “Dude. Your hair is gone in your shadow. It’s wrong looking. Focus. We can do this. Your ancestors are here.”

GM: Danny stops, and his voice changes, but not in a good or inhuman way. It’s angry, bitter, and raw in a way that only a hurt human can sound. “No. They’re not. I cut my hair. I don’t want my braids or sweetgrass or smudging or any of the wigwam-crybaby crap.” Brook feels his friend toss a pebble in his lap. “Let’s see how many you can skip, Green Lady baby.”

Brook: Brook frowns. It’s a reverse now. He was always so dismissive of the ways of the who he’d been adamant were not his people. But what he realized was that they don’t have to be his people for the spirits of things to reach him, or vice versa. But now here was Danny, throwing down his hand in pure sorrow and frustration. And now the sun and their hats have made the boy feel like a little bit of a fool, taking a rock.

“I think I’m ready to tell you what happened that week I missed school last year. The last time I gave Nelson a black eye.” Brook throws the rock, hoping to skip it well.

GM: The stone goes spinning away into the darkness, where it skips off the cave-rock repeatedly. Six times to be precise, a number painfully higher than any of Danny’s throws. Both boys cannot help but listen to the echoing stone strikes.

Click.

Pling

Plack,

Clack,

Plick,

CLANG

Perhaps the stone skips further in the dark, but the sixth strike drowns them out, both by its volume and strange tone. The two boys instinctively look at each as they recognize it as the sound of stone striking, not stone, but metal.

“Wh-,” Danny begins to ask, but then clicks on the flashlight clipped to his belt. Its sudden light causes both preteens to reflexively squint. As their eyes adjust, Danny peers into the flashlight’s beam and the distant cave-rock it illuminates.

oth boys once again turn to another after simultaneously spotting something metallic jutting from the cave-rock. “Wha–,” begins Danny again, before walking towards the object, “I thought you said the Feds or Rangers cleared out the bunker?”

The flashlight’s beam shakes and wobbles as the light is brought closer to the metallic object. “Dude, maybe a camper left it since then?”

Brook: Brook is about to spill beans even as the rock skips, until they hear the clang of iron. Neither of them can resist the impulse to check it out, and the taller of the youths walking over to the jutting something after adjusting to the flood of light. It’s strange, was his mother still in charge of the Rangers back when this happened? He’s forgotten the exact date they’ve told everyone those wackos came through. “Well… here, hold the light steady. Let’s see what it is first.” Reaching out, the young preteen carefully bringing his hands around it, seeing which way it’d let him move it without breaking it. Hoping his gloves will keep him safe from any cuts.

GM: Together, they identify the metallic object as a rusted locker box, likely of military origin. The box had been stowed in a cunning artificial alcove in the cave-rock. Someone had chiseled a roughly cubed hole into the rock wall, stored the lock box inside, and then used cement and paint to hide the alcove. In the dark, it would have been all but impossible to miss. However, the decades have not been kind to the painted concrete, and the repeated barrage of hard-thrown stones broke a hole in inch-deep cheap cement covering the box.

Danny excitedly grabs some of their gear, including a hammer and shovel. He sets down the flashlight and begins bashing and scraping away the lockbox. In the long-shadowed light, Danny smiles, almost shouts between grunts, “It’s like real buried treasure!” It’s the first time Brook has seen his best friend smile since his mother’s suicide.

Brook: It’s dangerous, but how can he tell Danny no to this? That smile. Maybe this is the answer, just doing things together. Brook stays in the cave with the flashlight, tapping away with a rock before Danny comes in. Brook lets his smaller friend hammer away at the cement, sweeping debris away with his boot while they uncover the treasure.

GM: Cement dust coats Danny’s grin and knife-shorn locks, making the youth look maniacally happy, but happy all the same. The image reminds Brook of being younger, when he and Danny made mud balls, built forts out of broken car parts and trash, and played ball amid dustbowl gardens. “Together,” Danny says, still grinning, as he makes way for Brook to help him slide the box out of the hole and move it to the ground.

Brook: Brook remembers. All too well. It’s sad, but he doesn’t know if they can ever go back to those care-free days. For now though? He’s willing to ignore the world for Danny, grinning as he helps the boy pull the box out of the wall and down to the ground, very slowly, muttering to Danny they could be explosives and so to put it down carefully as possible. “These people were dangerous, weren’t they? The ones who took over this cave?”

GM: Brook’s comment about explosives does nothing to deflate his friend’s exuberance. He does, however, follow his advice. He stares at the box, then up at Brook. “Dude… dude!” He puts his finger on the lock-switches, then pauses. His voice drops low, more conspiratorial than calm, “What… what do you think is inside?”

Brook: Brook looks up at the wall, seeing how sealed up it was. “Something important. They went through a lot of trouble. Can you get it open?”

GM: He nods for Brook to hand him his multi-tool, then gets to work. It doesn’t take him long to spring the two locks. “Magic fingers,” he says, clearly pleased with himself. Cracking those fingers, he places his fingers on the lid like a magician about to do a great reveal. Only the tiny furrow in his brow seems to convey the worry that the box might blow up–or worse, be empty.

The old metal lid creaks open. Both boys peer inside as the echoes bounce like bats around them. It’s hard to say what they see first. Most of the box is filled by two matching humidors. Then there’s a gun, a swatch of silver cloth stuck inside a chaplain’s bible, and a key. Surrounding all these artifacts is money. Lots of money.

As Danny pulls out the cash, both boys note that the bone-crisp money includes several denominations, but one dollar bills are the most common. What’s uncommon, however, is what’s been done to the money. Each and every one has been burnt.

Inspecting them by flashlight, Danny and Brook can see that the burn marks are relatively similar and roughly the size of a nickel. “Aw shit,” Danny says as he realizes the money is ruined. “Why… why would somebody… burn money?” His smile slips.

As Brook rifles through several ones, tens, fifties, and even some rare two-dollar bills, the ranger cadet notes how the circular, similarly sized marks resemble cigarette burns, but only slightly larger. Looking over defaced money, Brook vaguely remembers a time, nearly a decade ago, when Mary had to attend a week long NPS training in Seattle. She had left the then-six year old boy in the care of several distant relatives. He dimly remembers the hugely muscled Sampson Bird-Rattle pulling out a dollar bill and burning it with his cigarette. Though young, Brook was old enough then to understand that money bought things and fire destroyed them, so he had asked Sampson about it.

“Blinds the Black Men,” he had said, not elaborating.

Brook: “Blinds the Black Men,” Brook repeats, though more to himself than Danny as he looks over each little bill. But he doesn’t dwell too much, he takes them all out and piles them infront of Danny, before he picks up the gun. The only of the two of them to know how to safely handle one, the young Ranger doesn’t want Danny picking up an old loaded gun just to hurt himself, Brook looking the antique over.

“I don’t know what it means, but I’ve seen someone do that to a bill before. One of my mom’s cousins or something? He did these to his bills.”

GM: Danny nods. “Yeah.. I think I saw ‘Lij and some his friends playing poker. I can’t remember, but maybe some of the money had marks like these. Maybe not.” His attention, like Brook’s, shifts to the gun, though only the latter physically inspects it. And only the latter recognizes it immediately. It’s a .22 caliber Ruger target pistol fitted with an integrated silencer. Its serial number has been filed off and replaced with three tiny words likely etched by a hunting knife or razor blade:

Covenant

Sword

Arm

Consistent with Brook’s worry, the gun is indeed loaded, but with only a single bullet. Danny meanwhile pulls out the bible with the silver swatch. The former he plops down by the money and holds the latter closer to the flashlight. He then shows Brook how the fabric, which is about the size of a hand, is all monochrome silver weave save for a single sewn letter in its middle. A crimson L.

“Dude, this is… it’s like Sesame Street on angel dust,” the pre-teen says, shrugging in puzzlement as to what the swatch or letter might mean.

Brook: Brook grabs the multi-tool and carefully gets into the gun’s works, pulling out the target pistol’s pin pocketing it, putting it back down beside the case. Even if Danny wants to handle it, now, it’s safe. But his attention turns back to Danny as he pulls the bible out, brow furrowing at the cloth and the single initial on it.

“L? Was it like… on a certain page in that bible? Gun with one bullet, bible, money. I bet this was like… for those bad guys to grab and run, and pop themselves if the cops caught them.” Leaving the bible investigation to Danny, Brook pulls out the Key to inspect, hoping it’s for something cool.

GM: Left to inspect the bible, Danny picks up the still open book, only to set it back down. “Yeah… uhh, I don’t think this is red ink like Mrs. Scheingart uses.” He nudges Brook to show him the page, which has been splattered with what Brook recognizes as dried blood splatter. Someone has used said blood, when it was fresh, to repeatedly paint the words: Brothers Keep Silent.

The sanguine defacement covers both pages save for a single verse. Jeremiah 51:20. Danny reads it aloud, “Thou art my battle axe and weapons of war: for with thee will I break in pieces the nations, and with thee will I destroy kingdoms.”

He looks up at his friend. “Not your normal Jesus Saves bumpersticker.”

Brook: Brook leans over to take a look soon as his friend nudges him, still holding the key as he looks over the bloody messages. It’s more than clear that these people were some kind of crazy cult. The quote however sends a chill up the young man’s spine. They really had been ready to go to all-out war for their god.

“Nope… I guess they were more than just a little culty and nuts. What about this key? You think there’s even more treasure? Shine the light on it.”

GM: Danny obliges. The key itself appears rather nondescript. It’s attached to a large keychain, though, which is in the crude outline of a leg-bone. Its material, however, is too porous and rough, which gives the keychain the appearance of a dog biscuit–an item most Falls’ natives have not seen, but which the ranger cadet nonetheless recognizes.

“Maybe the key unlocks one of these boxes?” Danny says, pointing to the two humidors still inside the lockbox. “Or well, that wouldn’t make sense,” he remarks in afterthought. “Cause… you know… anyone who’d have the box would… have the key,” he explains, rather lamely.

He shrugs and moves on to the two humidors. Hefting the first one, he angles it into the light, then jolts in alarm, nearly dropping the case. “Shit!” he exclaims with a subsequent laugh that tries to cover his anxiety. Despite his forced bravado, he doesn’t open the humidor. Instead, he angles his flashlight through the top’s glass display.

“Looks like, uh, this box is for you, Brooks,” he says half-jokingly as he slides over the humidor. Inside the humidity-controlled container are two well-preserved corpses. Tiny corpses, but corpses nonetheless. The first is a bat. The second, a snake. Both are as black as they are dead.

So preserved in the humidor, the two creatures look like they are merely sleeping, despite being dead for potentially decades. Brook, being learned in wildcraft, quickly identifies both species. The first is a western small-footed myotis, one of Idaho’s most common chiropterans. The second is a timber rattlesnake. Both are afflicted with melanism, a not common but known condition that gives them their shadowy hue.

Danny, meanwhile, moves on to the next and last item, or at least last box within a box. “A bunch of papers,” he says to Brook as he begins to inspect the pile of papers. After rifling through the stack, Danny shakes his head. He passes the papers to Brook, then says, “I can’t really make heads or tails of these. Sounds, uh, lawyer-y.”

The other pre-teen has similar luck, or lack thereof, after perusing the typewriter-printed documents. Danny meanwhile has begun to nimbly pick at the humidor’s inside. “Ah, yes!” he exclaims as he lifts up a false bottom. He excitedly shows Brook’s the twice hidden item inside. A scroll. And by the look of it, old and fragile.

“Best not touch, Brooks, and leave it to Mr. Magic Fingers,” he remarks smiling. Despite his words, Danny hesitates. “What do you think it is? A secret name for a chthonic demon? A recipe for applesauce? Directions to… dude, I don’t even know with… whoever left this.”

Brook: Brook just watches, looking over the two boxes and wondering what the hell is going on with whoever had these boxes packed. The first was disturbing, two melonistic animals pinned up in a box display to mummify or something. It’s impossible to know what these wackos thought as they stashed this here. But he’s going to take it. Get rid of it, or bury it somewhere safe.

The papers are equally troubling, as the young boy can’t figure them out, not even the smart one of the two can. Brook rolls the papers up after getting them nice and squared and he stuffs them in his pocket, planning on taking a dictionary and these papers into the library.

That’s when the scroll comes in, it’s a straight mystery to them both, and his chest clenches. “Use gloves,” he warns, looking to Danny. “I bet it’ll be some secret future ‘god is coming’ prophecy junk. But be super fucking careful when you open it. I know I’ll mess it up, so… just careful.”

GM: Danny nods, and goes to get a pair of gloves. His movements and bobbing flashlight create strange shadows on the cave-walls. Brook could almost swear he sees one of the animal corpses twitch inside the humidor.

Brook: Brook hefts the papers up and carefully turns, putting the papers in a bag so he can slap them back in the humidor they came from before they leave.

GM: His now-gloved friend returns, however, before Brook can check. “Okay, let’s go for the applesauce,” he says grinning. He turns to Brook. “You know, part of me wondered if you planned or staged all… this,” he says motioning to the lockbox and all. “I wouldn’t even put the bloody bible and animal mummies past you. But all that writing? What was the gun, by the way? Looks weird but wicked cool.”

Brook: Brook still feels silly about Danny so easily tricking him earlier, with him forgetting about the hair and the stone skipping sounding like… something bad in the dark. But when he leaves, there’s no one to trick him, and as the humidor’s animals seem to twitch, the young ranger slowly puts a hand over the case, trying to feel for movement instead of relying on his eyes. But Danny comes back too soon, making him jump and sigh before shaking his head.

“I don’t really know how to put up cement either… the gun though? It’s a sport .22, it’s even got a silencer. I think’s for like… suicide, dude. Here, I took the pin out, check it out.” Brook grabs the gun again, carefully ejecting the round inside and picking it up, handing the gun to Danny and taking his own flashlight to check the bullet, to see if it was anything special.

GM: Brook recognizes the bullet as a .22 conical ball cap, or CB. Its long muzzle velocity, combined with the built in suppressor, would make the shot virtually silent.

Virtually, unlike Daniel who has become truly silent. He makes no movement to take the offered gun. When Brook turns his eyes from the single bullet to his best friend’s face, he sees the pain. Pain deeper than any gunshot. And that’s when the preteen just realizes what he’s said.

Suicide.

Brook: Shit.

Brook pales a little in the dark, dropping the gun on the ground as he realizes what he’s said. Danny truly is the smarter of the two if the half breed can say something so horrible without realizing until afterwards.

“Danny, I-I didn’t mean. Fuck, I am so sorry. I-I just—you’re like the closest thing to family I can get, dude, I’d never mean it like that. That came out so wrong, please believe me.”

GM: Daniel sags like a string-cut marionette. His chin starts to quiver in the flashlight cave. Brook’s words seem to deflate any anger, but that just leaves his best friend with an imploding misery.

“Why?”

The fragile, raw question slips out between a pair of wet teardrops hitting the lockbox. “Why did she do it, Brooks? I-I know she had it hard… ever since my d… he left. But were we r-really that bad?”

Brook: Brook feels his heart twist and ache, and it demands his body to move. He grabs Danny and pulls him in as tight as he can, feeling the question digging into him, into things he can relate with, and into the parts of him that hold Danny up in such high regard. How can someone so good to him suffer so badly? How can someone drop a child in a sack into a river? Why? Thoughts of the coyotes, the river of blood, pills, and water, what they’ve just found, all flash.

“No. No they weren’t, Danny. I just… it’s… it has to be this place. The Rez, the town, even the lands around it. It-it’s like poison, Danny… I’m so sorry. I’m so, so, sorry. She loved you, it wasn’t your fault.”

GM: Danny sobs. He doesn’t fight the platonic embrace, but all he can give in return is a weak clutch of Brook’s shoulders that slides off as he balls his fists. The darkness covers the boys. It hides their mutual parental pains, their heart-wrenching question, and their unresolved regrets and resentments. But it does not heal them. Not today at least. Perhaps these are wounds that never truly heal. They just scab.

And as Danny finally pulls away, wiping his snotty and tearful face on his shirt, he decides that he’s done picking at that scab. For now. He stares at all the… things they’ve uncovered. And eventually his eyes return to the one thing untouched. Sniffling, he looks at his gloved hands then back to the scroll. “Okay, we’ve… come this far,” Danny remarks ambiguously, then adds, “Might as well keep… going.”

Like a diver, he takes a deep breath and dives in. He slowly unrolls the scroll, which reveals itself as a two-page letter. Unlike the stack of bleached papers with typewriting, this letter is old, really old. Small cracks appear as it’s unrolled, requiring Danny’s utmost nimbleness.

As Danny tenderly smooths out the pages and reads the first two lines out loud, the boys discover just how old the letter is.

" Edward Rutledge
Philadelphia, June 1776."

Danny turns to Brook. “What the fu–, no, this…”

Curiosity gets the better of him and he resumes reading. A bit faster now. Angling the flashlight, Brook can see the letter’s handwriting is antiquated, a scrolling quill-penned penmanship. Frankly, it’s amazing Danny’s able to read it as well as he can.

“Dear Representative Adams,”

“No doubt it will alarm you to read words penned by someone, who has these last several months argued so fervently for Reconciliation with the British Crown in the face of your own stance in favor of, Independence for these colonies of America. But in these times the world moves around us and we shall find ourselves left behind like rocks in a rushing stream.”

“I have myself received a revelation. I will not say it is religious in nature, for I feel it concerns our own world and not a higher realm. Our own lives, the lives of men the world over, these are the subjects of the knowledge imparted to me.”

“Many nights I have been haunted by dreams of the serpent. Is this the same beast that tempted the fairer sex in the Garden of Eden? Whatever the case may be, it leers at me and threatens with a snap of its jaws, the consequences of capitulation to the revolutionaries amongst us, and I believed it an extension of my own distaste for Independence. But as I write this, I am exhausted and sleepless, and labor by the light of a candle, for this very night the Serpent visited me. It was no dream, for its scales gleamed as the brass of the candlestick or the wetness of this ink and the death that reeked from it was as powerful a stench as I have ever encountered. It wore upon its brow a crown that shone, but the Light could not hide its ugliness. It opened its jaws and between it held the whole world, and worlds in the Heavens yet to be named.”

“This the Serpent spoke to me. It told me of the future that I must help bring about. In this world, men writhed blindly through darkness, and ruled one another by cunning and subterfuge alone. Deceit became the coin of kings, and the most cunning ruled not by Law but by the vagaries of their own will. The Americas, this new world still so virgin and unexplored, was fodder for the Serpent which would wax strong in the politicking and two-facedness of an America ruled by petty despots and governors lying both to the people of our colonies and to the British Crown who appointed them. This was the world the Serpent desired, and everywhere its brethren snakes would slither, pouring poisoned honey into every ear.”

Danny spares Brook another unsure look, then continues:

“And then I heard a storm as if from the beating of great wings. A shadow passed over an, and I espied the Eagle above me. In one claw it held a lightning bolt, and in the other a scroll, and written upon the scroll was a Code of Laws all men must obey. The serpent recoiled and the Eagle alighted upon a mountain there to rule. Its wings embraced a new world, a new world order in which the laws set apart the best and highest-minded men that they might rule the rest. In this world, law would rule and majesty and conquest along would be the makers of kings. Cunning would win only scorn. By strength and law would one man attain lordship over another.”

“The Eagle spoke to me as the Serpent had, but its words did not fall on horrified ears as the Serpent’s did. It promised me the world of justice, where Right would come to pass, and that the history we few fortunate men were making would bring it about. But only if the Colonies broke from the Crown could the Eagle be free to build this world. I saw its wings were afire and its eyes were of gold, its beak the gleaming steel of a soldier’s bayonet! It was wreathed in rifle smoke and its pinions were purest light that could illumine every corner of our world!”

There’s a delicate rustle of paper as he moves on the second, partial-filled paper.

“Then the Eagle carried away the Serpent and cast it away into the west, so it watched over our new world alone. And so I understand now that I served the Serpent, that subtle and deceitful beast, but now my eyes have been opened and I seek to do the work of the Eagle. It is to this end that I have resolved to sign the Declaration that you and Jefferson and the others are drafting. Outwardly, I shall suggest that this decision is prompted by a desire for unity among the colonies, but to you I profess the truth behind my decision in the hope that you will yourself understand the greater conflict being expressed through the process of Independence.”

“I hope that I can count on you as a brother in this matter, and that you can in turn bring others into the fold of understanding regarding the victory of the Eagle over the Serpent. I am certain tat I am not alone in my revelation, and I am already seeking out certain persons who have revealed themselves to be followers of the Eagle and all it stands for.”

“I shall speak to you soon, and rest assured that my quill shall be in hand as it is now.”

Danny pauses a moment before reading the next and final two lines:

“Yours in liberty,
Edward Rutledge, Representative for South Carolina.”

Danny’s eyes squint, and not just because of the dim flashlight.

Brook: Brook hangs on to his friend tightly in the dark, even if this is a wound that will never truly heal for either of them for Danny, his friend is there for him. They’re there for each other. Before this, he remembers days Danny was his only source of calm, the only person in his life not pushing him to be, or pushing him into danger. Even with high school coming up so soon, with them out of the rez, he wonders if that situation will change. But for now, Brook just knows that he can share this wound, and that he and Danny will heal and scar over one day. One day.

But for now, it’s a good idea for them to distract themselves. Pulling away from each other, they get to reading… whatever this is. It’s a stunned silence as Brook listens, sitting perfectly still as Denny reads out the ancient letter and the worries and triumph of a man long dead all come to light at the same time. He remembers his mother’s words on snakes, about what they are and where they come from. But it’s no real comfort, it just puts strange context on so many questions.

“I, uh… um. I have… fucking tap dancing Jesus in a birch bark canoe, what the fuck was that? Let’s… put it back, with the papers, it’s super old…”

Brook rubs his forehead, he has a lot of his own meaning to take from this. But what meaning can he take from this? Snakes with worlds in their mouths and crowns on their heads. Then eagles with lightning in their claws? Somehow it seems like an Indian nightmare, a thunder bird banishing a snake king, to make way for what sounds like the American Revolution.

“Fuck, Danny… do you think this guy seriously saw all this?”

GM: Danny’s face tightens in hard concentration, his jaw churning and clenching. “It… can’t be real, I mean… it’s so old. Why would it be here? Crazy white-ass people…” He frowns. A hand drifts to his braids. But they’re gone. “But…”

Brook: Brook slowly lets the lights go on his head one by one, until the light bulb pops into his brain. “Ukenta. The snake with the blinding crown. Eagle with a lightning bolt, warring with Ukenta, the Thunderbirds,” he mutters, gently nudging Danny. “And these people who put this thing here. You think these are like…a cult the dude in the letter made, after he saw this? To try fighting Ukenta?”

GM: Brook’s words seem to turn on an equal if not greater storm of light bulbs in Daniel’s mind. “Right! Yes, exactly, or… maybe not at all. Maybe it’s…” He looks back to the line.

“Uktena. My grandfather taught me about those. Remember we had to do that project back in… like fourth grade? You did the bitching art, but I did the reading man. Serpents in native mythology. It’s all over the place. But it’s all backwards.”

He continues, clearly excited, as if he’s lost of temporarily forgotten his still damp cheeks and chin. “Crazy white-ass people, dude.” He waves at the pile of items. “White people, to them, snakes are like evil. The devil in the garden and all that stuff, right?”

“But to us,” he begins then looks down a bit awkwardly at his biracial friend, “Or well to most natives, serpents are sources of wisdom, even magic. Like Quetzalcoatl with the Aztecs, Kukulkan with the Mayas. And you’re right, it’s like a spot on description of the Uktena, here, except like it’s described through a white dude’s eyes. The blinding crown, my grandfather says it’s like a jewel or diamond, the Ulu-something or other, which is all like sorcerous or magic granting.”

“And the stench? Like the Uktena was said to have breath that smelled so bad that no living creature could survive if they happened to inhale even the tiniest bit. I had that all written in our report. It’s called tons of different names in different tribes. The Sioux for example had the legends of the it, don’t ask me what they called it, horned serpent or something, but they had the legends about them fighting the thunderbirds.”

He flicks his hand up his chopped hair. “What if this old white dude had it wrong, like what if… we’re the Serpent people?” He sets the letter gently down, but then picks up the burnt money. “Okay, remember the first flag of the 13 colonies? Remember the creature on it?”

Brook: Brook’s eyes go wide, following along with Danny’s thought process the whole way, keeping up at least enough to know where he was going as he nods at the smaller boy’s questions, a huge grin breaking on his face at being able to take the realization even further, keeping up with Danny.

“The rattlesnake! But like, just a while after this letter was written they changed the symbol to the eagle. I just remembered a bunch of shit too. Fuck. Okay, go on, I’m following.”

GM: Daniel smiles, “You know, you listen pretty well for a guy who sleeps through most of his classes.”He then turns the flashlight to the interior lid of the lockbox. The light illuminates three stickers or decals:

The first says DEATH TO ZOG, the second reads, NORTHWEST TERRITORY IMPERATIVE, and the third is a picture of the Gadsden Revolutionary flag depicting the rattlesnake and motto, DON’T TREAD ON ME.

“Don’t ask me what the fuck is Zog save the awesome name of a troll or metal band. But shit, Brooks, I mean, you’re right about the eagle. Like…” He looks around and then picks up a fistful of burnt cash. Holding up a dollar bill, he asks, “Look, dude, where’s the eagle?”

Brook sees none. Because the place where the Eagle-centered Seal of the United States should be is burnt away.

Brook: Brook’s entire train of thought crashes at the station as his friend points out the eagle being the thing burned out. He realizes his first thought is wrong, and that-…he slowly puts the pieces together, a frown slowly creeping over his face as he smooths his thumb over the wood of the case of mummified animals. What if? If it was…oh no.

“Blinds the Black Man… what if the ‘eagles’ are the government, not the snakes. Like that old senator guy reached out to other senators? What if that senator HEARD cunning, like a white fuck would, but Ukenta appeared to him to say that he had to make a land of wisdom? Does that mean the secessionist guys here were ‘snakes’? Is that why they had this letter? Trying to follow Ukenta’s words? I mean… fuck, dude.”

GM: “Fuck, dude, yeah… like it’s a conspiracy within a conspiracy. Weird shit.” He scratches his scalp. “But weren’t those secessionists like a bunch of white racist psychoids? Or is that just want ‘The Man’ has made us believe?” He drops his hand and shakes his head. “I don’t know. I don’t know what to think… or do with all this stuff. Well, besides the cash.”

Brook: Brook nods at the thought of their conspiracy getting deep. They aren’t sure of anything, and that takes a lot of the meaning out of all this. “You can take the cash. But… Danny, can I tell you something important? Something you have to take to your grave, even?”

GM: In the darkness, Daniel’s face crinkles with worry, excitement, doubt, and curiosity. “Uh yeah, yes, of course. We’re best friends.” He takes off a glove and holds up to show the scar on his thumb where as young kids they cut their thumbs and pressed them together. “Blood brothers forever. No matter what.”

Brook: He gives his friend a weak smile and takes off his own glove, showing the scar on his own thumb, but he hesitates for a moment. “That week I missed school last year, and when I stopped cutting my hair. I had an… experience, Danny. I…” Brook fishes out the pendant, looking down at the red jewel and steel heart he was gifted.

“The moon saved me from a pack of something wrong… I carried someone hurt out of the woods, a big guy. Back before I was so big. And the moon, she—I sound nuts. But I heard drums, and the moon felt like it was spurring me on. I should have died trying to carry that person.”

GM: Danny listens, attentively in the dark, despite a war of emotions and thoughts waging on his flashlight-lit expression. He looks to Brook, down to the pendant, to the strewn cache, and back to his friend. He makes a motion as if to hold the pendant, but his hand falters. Maybe even shakes. “W-hat… dude, I don’t understand… you like carried a guy, rescued him?”

“Okay, that’s really freaking cool, but what does that have to do with the… moon, and drums you say? And that necklace? I’ve never seen you take it off, but never seen you take it out either. Dude, what the fuck is that?”

Brook: Brook looks concerned for a moment, looking to the lip of the cave and out into the blinding light for a moment, quickly stuffing the pendant back into is shirt. He starts the story, telling Danny he’s omitting certain things before he even starts. He leaves out that the man is, or was, a Mooner, that the coyote wasn’t breathing and is probably stumbling blindly out there, all until he gets near the end of his story.

“…after Mary told me those stories, she warned me of snakes, and that they were dangerous, and that this man was one of them. So were the things after me. But when she went inside to call an ambulance he woke up. I could barely understand him, but he thanked me, told me to pick one of his necklaces as a thank you. I picked this one. And he told me to come closer. He warned me about ‘the darkness in me’ and not to be afraid, and…everything went black. I had a vision. And when I woke up, I-…he was gone. I realized the spirits aren’t made up things. Even if I’m not Kainai, the moon gave me the power to pull that man out.”

GM: “That’s… heavy…” is all the boy can reply. Other thoughts and feelings seem to flicker in his eyes and face, but they are like flitting bats in a dark cave: neither youth can identify–much less capture–them. However, Brook knows his friend well enough to be be sure of one thing. For good or ill, Danny believes him.

Brook: Brook slowly reaches out and grabs his friend’s wrist, trying to bring this point home. “Please. Never go off alone looking for this kind of stuff. What I saw? The parts I can’t tell you? You shouldn’t have to face them alone. I’d prefer not at all, but… you live here too.”

With his tale told, he puts the scroll gently back into it’s hidden space, and puts the stack of papers over it, sealing the humidor and putting it side by side with the other one. He loads the bullet back into the now unfireable gun and puts it back in the lockbox. He pockets the key as well, resolving to one day find the lock it goes to.

“We should bury this stuff somewhere. You can keep the cash, I’ll keep the key. But if these guys ever come back? I kinda feel we should let them have their stuff back.”

GM: Danny’s reply lacks confidence and finality, but he eventually nods slowly, deferring to his best friend. “Okay…” He looks around. “So, like, you wanna put back in that hole or like bury, uhh, outside?”

Brook: Brook looks over Danny for a moment, and just sighs at himself. “Danny, If I lost you? I don’t know what I’d do with myself. So I’m just saying… the forest is dangerous. Take me with you if you ever follow the scent of Ukenta. Okay? You’re my brother.”

Taking his backpack, the half breed carefully pulls everything out of it, wraps the humidors in a plastic bag, and and zips the backpack closed with them both inside, sighing in relief t have them fit. He adds the key in his pocket to the chain of the necklace around his neck, two mysteries hanging from his shoulders, and picks the bible and gun back up. They go back in the lockbox, the young man closing it and hefting it back up to fit in the space in the cave wall they’ve pulled it from, getting Danny’s help to cover it back up with a bit of the concrete rubble. He looks drained, shoulders slack, and he feels relieved to finally tell someone at least part of his story. At least part of something that’s been eating him.

“I get it now, by the way. The snake in the humidor could be Ukenta. The bat might be a Thunderbird. if we’re following a theme.”Despite saying that, the bigger young man grabs the bag and strides into the dark, carefully finding the small alcove he knows will keep it a secret, and hiding the bag there best he can. They can come back or it. Sooner or later.

GM: Daniel holds the big flashlight so Brook can see as he toils. There are a couple times when Brook thinks his friend is about to say something, but the cave’s darkness and echoes make his senses untrustworthy. Yet, when the deed is done, Daniel looks out at the cave-mouth which still radiates oven–like heat. “Still hot as the House of Cthon out there.”

Brook: Brook finishes quickly, and once the deed is indeed done, he looks back out at the sunbaked box canyon. It’s been awhile since they got here, and this adventure in finding treasure has been the only interesting part about it. The young man wonders if maybe he’s not capable yet of contacting Danny’s ancestors, but he knows he can just be there for him. “Want to pack up and get out of here? We could go swimming, and then hit up the store for some freezies.”

GM: Daniel looks between the blinding, burning sunlight and the cooler darkness. His flashlight hands low in his hand, idly illuminating a shorn braid. In the chiaroscuro shadows, it resemble a black serpent coiling around the orphan’s heel.

Clicking off the light, Danny tags his best friend on the shoulder, “Life, Brooks. It’s some messed up shit, dude. One moment you’re babysitting for a paycheck, and the next, somebody’s summoning up Hell. So here’s the morale to the story, Space Marine: let’s skip the swimming and go straight for the freezies.”


Thursday night, 9 October 1998

GM: A few minutes later, after the pair pack up and exit the cave, Brook is struck blind by the sweltering summer sun. He blinks reflexively, squinting away the burning after-images. When they finally fade, it is a few years later. The black night sky is sliced open by lightning. Thunder roars inside the box-canyon of Scratch’s Corral. Rain pounds down on the muddy ground and wind-blown pines.

Lightning2.jpg

For a moment, Brook thinks he hears the rumble of motorcycles, but the sound–if it exists outside his mind–is swallowed by the storm’s cacophony. Ahead, Auld Coot’s Creek slakes itself on the canyon’s run-off. The cave beyond it awaits.

Brook: Brook feels the sound move through his chest cavity but he doesn’t blink. If his theory is correct, that this is one of those Ukenta secessionist cult people from way yonder long ago, then… maybe this can end without too much bloodshed. Once the youth spots the cave, he gets low, bow at the ready to fire a piece of wood and steel into the darkness. He slinks in from the rain, stilling his breathing as he carefully watches the dark. Despite his reminiscing about the secrets he has stowed in this area, his heart is still beating a mile a minute. Moses is here, he can almost feel it in his bones, and he’s going to stop this once and for all, ease the burden on his mother and co-workers.

GM: The cave’s interior is dark, but the smell of blood hits the ranger cadet like one of the Britter’s sledgehammers. Fresh blood. In the pitch blackness, Brook’s boot touches something. It wobbles, then tumbles over. Its carrion smell is familiar to the adolescent hunter.

Brook: Brook’s entire body goes rigid as the smell hits and sets him on edge. But he’s swallowed a river of blood, it’s not going to stop him now. Even if it seems just the right twinge for him to knock something over in the dark.

GM: The slight sound causes another to awaken. “W-what do you w-want!?” comes a masculine, if thoroughly terrified voice in the darkness. A familiar voice. It’s a voice that’s haunted his childhood. Normally, its tone is one of over-weaned confidence, petty cruelty, and blind bigotry. But the thread of fear has always been there. Deep down in a dark closet.

Nelson Judd.

Amidst the echo of his terrified shout comes the rattle of what sounds like bones, scraped stone, and the ripped strain of duct tape.

Brook: Brook’s bow raises up towards the voice, cord tightening until the part of his brain not committed to animal instinct finally connects the dots. Is that? No. Oh no. Nelson. Brook swallows and tries to steady himself. It’s like those war movies, they injure someone out in the open as a trap. Or a bear follows a pack of wolves to take what’s left of a fresh kill.

Brook slowly kneels instead, reaching back into his bag and carefully pulling out two of the thick road flares from his kit. He needs light. But being stealthy isn’t a possibility anymore either, Nelson has heard him and has likely alerted Moses. Speaking loud and clear, he starts reciting years old memories.

“Thou art my battle axe and weapons of war: for with thee will I break in pieces the nations, and with thee will I destroy kingdoms.”

Yanking the cap off of one of the flares, the young hunter quickly strikes the match head of the flare and lights it up in the cave, flooding it with bright red light, revealing the young hunter drawing back the bowstring once again.

GM: In the red phosphorescence glow, the cave looks hellish. Its ‘decor’ only enhances the disturbing effect. The cave walls have been painted in blood. Crude hand-prints, pentagrams, as well as increasingly schizophrenic letters spell out again and again a familiar refrain:

GIVE THE DEVIL HIS DUE

The ‘object’ that Brook knocked over is revealed to be the head of a mountain-ram that was previously propped up on a rock like an atavistic idol. And in the back of the cave, beside some survival gear and the torn shreds of a soiled straight-jacket, there’s a cage.

It’s made of ram-bones and bent pine-saplings, woven together and further secured with duct tape. Inside the savage, anachronistic prison hangs Nelson. He’s been stripped down to his underwear, his arms and legs hyper-extended and tapped in cocoons of the same duct tape, like a primitive but still painful wrack. The bloody pelt of the mountain ram is wrapped around his shoulders, painting his body is rivulets of gore and fear-sweat.

The boy’s blue eyes squint at the sudden exposure to light, but when he opens them, alarmed shock replaces horror on his face. “Brook! B-Brook!” He gives a short gasp of pain as his exclamation twist his stretched limbs. In the red glow, Brook can see a number of painful bruises covering the nearly naked Nelson.

Brook: Brook slowly looks around the cave and scowls, quickly putting his arrow back in its quiver and and putting his bow around his shoulder as he pulls up the shotgun, unafraid of being loud now that he’s turned the lights on. The cave is disgusting, as is the condition that Nelson is in, but this is no time to enjoy seeing him scared and in pain. Quickly and quietly, shotgun aimed at every shadow, the ranger cadet walks along the wall to the cage.

Things slowly set in as he just stands there for a moment. This isn’t how he’s ever pictured his life as a ranger, baring teeth at the dark for a person who’s put him down his entire life. But this isn’t high school, and the realization hits the young man like a wave. This disgusting scene does not belong here. It boils down to this; these are his lands, his wood, and his people. This sick one handed goat fister Moses is fucking with the wrong someone’s flock, and their guardian predator cub isn’t having it, snarling all business at Nelson.

“Shut up. Where is he? Did he leave the cave?”

GM: Brook’s rebuke seems to sting Nelson, but he grows silent. As Brook looks around, he identifies the contents beside the cage: a large backpack and outdoor gear that looks like it was stripped from an unfortunate hiker. But no traps, and no Moses MacDonald. Thunder rumbles outside the cave.

Brook: Brook slowly slinks over to the bag, looking up at the mouth of the cave before he opens and starts to go through the bag. If there’s anything he can hold as blackmail or to help them leave, he needs it. “We’re getting you out of here, Nelson. Just like the cabin, do everything I say. Keep an eye on the mouth of the cave, and tell me… how long has he been gone?”

GM: As Brook glances up at Nelson, the ranger cadet sees an expression he’s never witnessed on the jock’s face. Concern. Care. “B-brook!” he blurts out, then swallows hard. “Y-you have to go, g–get out of here. Now! H-he’ll come b-back! He’s… he’s not hu–,” he shakes his head, tears starting to well over his bruised eyes. “He’s… go, s-save yourself… p-please… please!”

Brook: Brook looks up at the boy and just pauses a moment, looking back at the cave entrance. This isn’t good, Nelson’s head isn’t right. Not hu… hurt? Human? That would explain a few things. But he needs to calm Nelson down, needs to remind him who he’s talking to.

“Nelson. It’s okay. I’m everywhere, remember? There’s a snake with a blinding crown and the stench of death with me, and I will not become a slave to fear thanks to it. You helped me become this person too, Nelson. Now breathe, and trust me.” Turning the bag up-side down, he carefully empties out the contents.

GM: The upturned bag spills out various outdoor supplies. Maps, compass, MREs, some accelerants, and more. As Brook starts sorting through the items, he glances up to see Nelson suck in a breath. A hot tear rolls down his bruised, grimy jaw, but he takes another breath, and then a third.

Brook: Brook spots a few things that can help him here, the accelerants mostly. He’s got more than enough of what he needs to start a fire. Nelson worries him though. Even if he’s finally breathing, he’s still shitting his pants more and more.

GM: “Brook,” he says again, this time no longer in full panic or pleading despair, “He’s crazy. Get me out. Please. We have to get away. We have to run. We ca–”

Nelson’s voice dies amidst a blinding flash of light that frames the cave’s mouth in piercing white. The dreadful radiance frames a man. Or at least something that wears its shape.

Moses.jpg

Moses Ezekiel MacDonald has a thin, gray mane streaked with disheveled white and balding spots. An equally slovenly, savage beard frames stained teeth whose smile looks equally suited to gnashing throats or feces. Warts and moles litter the oddly plump skin around his deep–shadowed and –creased eyes: manic, psychopathic orbs that bulge with thoughts that no man, living or dead, should imagine.

His unbuttoned shirt and pants hang loosely over his flesh, as if the trappings of civilization will and can never fit. His left sleeve hangs limp and empty as a ghost’s shroud. Dog tags hang from his chest, their aged metal resembling the old shrapnel clearly buried beneath his skin. Rain drips from his mangy locks, clothes, and the lumber axe which hangs from his muscular hand.

Thunder rattles the sky like bone-snapping laughter. Moses’ own teeth chitter and snap in eerie echo.

“HehEheHaheHAHahaheehe…”

As the thunder subsides, the psychopath that looks far too young to be a WWII vet hurls his lumber axe with the casual ease of a man flushing a toilet. Whipping through the air, the deadly sharp tool embeds itself into the barrel of Brook’s shotgun. The sudden force rips the firearm from the ranger cadet’s hands, causing both instruments of death to clatter against the cave wall.

Brook: This is him. Moses MacDonald. Mo. Brook stands tall, the brim of his hat keeping the light out of his eyes as he stands up, looking the man over. His heart begins to race again, predator facing predator. But one of them has to take the first flash of teeth, and it’s Moses. The younger man braces as the axe comes in, only to feel the great force of it snap the metal rungs keeping it on the sling over his shoulder, sending it all flying down to the ground. Brook’s only reaction is to put up his fists before…

GM: Moses slowly turns his head, and stares at a spot a foot to the left of Brook’s eyes.

“How old is you, boy?” he asks.

Darkness once again descends upon the canyon, leaving only the blood-red light of the flares. Brook hears his cage–bound peer begin to hyperventilate.

Brook: Good, he’s talking. Slowly, the ranger pulls the bow off his shoulders and tosses it down to the pile now being made of their weapons, taking off his hat and tossing it into the pile as well. “Fifteen, Mr. MacDonald. I got your message in that outhouse… I came to talk and get my friend back, maybe trade for something that’s missing if I’m right about the snake and the eagle, and whose side you’re on.” He only hopes he isn’t spouting gibberish at this man. Prays to the absent moon.

GM: “Fifteen…” Moses repeats, still staring at the vacant space with a quasi-vacant gaze. “I was once fifteen, long time ago. Too long by half, I reckon. But once, once I was fifteen. Too young to join the Army and spit in the Führer’s face.” His eyes bulge a bit. “Boy, you ever spit in a man’s face? You ever put your spit in a man’s mouth?”

He doesn’t wait for Brook to answer–if he’s even talking to him: “So there was me, fifteen, walking in them woods one day when I met the Devil, or at least somebody about the right height. Now me, I wasn’t afraid of nobody, German or Devil, so we got right to talking.”

The rain continues to pound against the man’s back and pour down his pants and arm-less sleeve. Moses licks a finger, ‘“Devil,’ said me, ‘How am I gonna get in the Army? ’Lie,’ said the Devil, ’It’s what I’d do.’ ‘Devil,’ said me, ‘I can’t even grow a beard. Give you my soul if you’ll help me out.’"

Moses moves forward, more a stagger than a step, but he continues staring and sharing his tale. “But the Devil said, him, ’I’ve go a lot of souls, but I’m sure I can think of something else. Tell you what, you go to town and you sign up for the Army, and I’ll make sure you get in, and I’ll make sure you see action.’”

Another step closer. “So I shook the Devil’s hand, me, and went down to town. Sure enough, they took me, and a year later, I was starving in a foxhole somewhere in France. Then one day, I step on a landmine. So I’m here bleeding, and who do I see? The Devil himself, come round again. ‘You here for my soul, Devil?’ said me.”

Moses takes another shuffle closer. “But the Devil, he shook his head, ‘I told you, son, I don’t need souls. I’m starving out here, though. All the meat is mangled and charred. I don’t suppose you need that hand?’”

Another step. “Now me, I started to argue, but I knew the rest of me was all torn up and my left arm was the only part halfway decent. A deal is a deal, so I let the Devil gnaw off my hand, and because he was really hungry he ate off a bit more, see?”

Moses twists his torso, causing the armless sleeve to slap wetly against his bare chest. “’You’re a plain dealer,’ said the Devil, ‘And I don’t need one of those in Hell. Kill one more man for me when you get home, and I’ll make sure you live a good long time.’”

Another step. Nearly an arm’s length away now, Moses adds, “Sure enough, some Frenchie found me within the hour and got me shipped back home. I killed my brother–in–law not a day after I got off the boat.”

Moses’ bulging eyes suddenly slide to lock hold of Brook’s. “A deal’s a deal, boy. Fifteen…”

Brook: Brook doesn’t move, but he feels his heart going faster and faster the closer the man gets to them, and things slowly start to click into place. Isn’t human. This man isn’t human, is that what Nelson was trying to say? And here it is, a man who claims he’s been alive since WWII, with the Devil following him. It’s a lot to take in, but the young man stands his ground where he is, never once looking away or giving the man an opening of weakness. And finally, it’s the eye contact he’s been waiting for. He looks Moses right back in the eye. There isn’t a doubt in his mind this man is who and what he says he is. Btween ghost riders and shadow beasts with tits, Brook is ready to believe anything.

“That’s what ‘give the Devil his due’ means, then. I believe you, Moses. I met the Devil once too, and I’ve seen his devils and wandering souls a plenty. But I’m not like you were. I’m scared, for these people in these lands, I’ve sworn to the one who pulled me from a sack in a river that I’d protect them from what wanders these woods. The Devil told me though, not to deny what I am, and to stare down my darkness, lest I become a slave to fear.”

Searching in the madman’s eyes, he hopes he can find a glimmer of hope for himself. “You’re a plain dealer, Moses. I might have something I can trade with you.”

GM: Moses cocks like a mongrel hearing a strange noise–or perhaps an old familiar one. He then lurches forward, the smell of fecal parasites and strange chemicals pungent on his breath and radiating from his rain-slick pores.

Nelson chokes back a cry of fear or protest.

Brook: Brook wills himself not to flinch, but his eyes trail over to the caves secret alcove, and back to Moses. This is a long shot, but if Moses is interested in affirmation…? It can work.

“The Devil sent a snake to Eden to tempt Eve, and I have a letter from a man that snake once again appeared to. Representative of South Carolina, Edward Rutledge. A letter proclaiming God’s dominion over the lands of my people long ago. This is Witiko Falls, the Devil has his fill of death and flesh here. But I can give you this letter, and you can burn it in his name. Burn the lies of the man who put the eagles that watch you on dollar bills, in the name of God.”

GM: The sky growls in a low pitch that shakes the earth. Moses sniffs the air. “Let’s see this toilet paper, you.” The asylum escapee doesn’t move to make it easier for Brook to disentangle himself to get the alleged colonial letter. But Moses waits as the teenager heads to the cave’s alcove. Brook catches a terrified, confused look from Nelson, as he glances back.

But as Brook moves the rocks aside from the tall ledge, it’s his own face that must choke back terror, or at least confusion. The backpack. It’s gone.

Gone.

Brook: Brook winces and feels a tremble of everything ring through his body. Fear, frustration, impotence. The thought to sneak around the corner and blast the lunatic’s head off his shoulders comes up into mind, as does the hard knuckles of his gloves and how much damage he’s sure they could do against him. But if he’s not even human what can the boy do to affect him? Thoughts of the Irishman pop up again, the blood, the missing body, the need to throw all that up. The thought that he’d eaten a human being. All too late. Thirteen-year-old naiveté has made this a dangerous situation.

Brook walks out the alcove empty-handed. “I’m sorry. It’s been taken. I… thought it would be safe. Thirteen-year-old me wasn’t thinking. If you give me a few days maybe I can find it.”

GM: Moses’ eyes squint and roll. His teeth chitter as if chewing on Brook’s words.

And then, just as suddenly, his eyes fly open, bulging with rage as he races towards Brook, gnarled fingers raised like bayonets. His raw screams oil the cave, “Lying to me?! LYING TO ME?! ALWAYS LYING, ALWAYS WATCHING, WATCHING ME, ME, ME, MEHE, HEHEHAHAHAHAHEEHEE!!!”

Nelson screams a vain warning as Moses leaps down upon Brook, his one hand clutching hold of Brook’s jacket, breaking the zipper.

Another distant lightning-bolt sunders the night.

Brook: Brook watches Moses closely as he does that chewing, feeling the leather of his gloves tighten as he clenches his fists. This is the moment, whether his words reach the man or a monster descends on him. There’s an instant he looks over at Nelson, just before the screaming starts. Synapses fire in his brain all at once, the young man’s body tensing and a deep fear rising in his gut as he’s grabbed by the jacket.

The lightning hits, and it feels like it hits in the teen’s chest. Words have failed him, and he remembers flashes of voices as a primal violence wells up like bile in his throat.

w h a t e v e r y o u h a v e t o

y o u w a n t t o b e f r e e

Brook’s body reacts on it’s own as those voices echo in his head, a foot sliding back in the same moment Moses grabs him. Nelson sees something he’s never seen on Brook’s face before, a kind of bestial snarl, teeth borne, screaming in murderous effort, and eyes wider than what looks possible, as his classmate’s fist suddenly comes up from in between the two of them, slamming hard as rocks into the psychopath’s jaw in a bone shattering uppercut. His gloves push the impact all through them, he barely feels a thing, but the steel on his knuckles makes sure Moses can feel it.

GM: Moses’ jaw caves in like over-ripe melon rind. Blood and teeth spew from his mangled mouth, sticking in his now-shredded beard. The bone-crushing blow knocks Moe backwards, crashing into the nearby cage of ram skeleton and pine sapling. The structure snaps, twisting the still duct-taped Nelson into a painful contortion. As the prison implodes, Nelson goes down hard on the cave-rock floor. Brook lamely feels Moe’s hand clutching for his throat, but the enraged teen beats him off.

Brook: Brook is losing the plot, fear mixing with rage and pent-up feelings as he feels the man’s bones give way to his savage uppercut, sending them both into the cage and into Nelson before the struggling pair rolls on their own backs to the side. Brook brushes off the man’s attempt at a strangle-hold and roars spit into his face, before…

GM: As the trio of bodies roll over each other and the tangle of bones and branches, Moses and Brook finally break away from the ensnaring morass. When they do so, the taller teen sees that the grisly goat-pelt is twisted around Moses’ head, exposing only his lower jaw. A jaw that inexplicably begins to resew itself back together before Brook’s eyes. New teeth bursting from scabbing over gums, bones re-popping into place. The madman smiles wickedly and spits into Brook’s face, his blood and broken teeth-shards speckling the young man’s face. His laughter is the sound of insanity.

Brook: Oh no. It’s happening again. Just like the coyote in the woods, the man’s head just wills itself back into existence and sends a shiver down the teenager’s spine. But the words echo in his head and he will fight. Brook shifts his focus, rearing back his arm and aiming for the madman’s chest, slamming his arm down into it as hard as he can.

“You think you’re special, shit-fingers!? Coyotes round these parts got the same kinda tricks!! I’ll eat your fucking heart!!!”

GM: Moses laughs. A few feet away, Nelson lays flat on his back, his neck at an odd angle against a rock outcropping, his limbs still trapped in duct-tape, but at least no longer pulled taut.

As Brook rears back his fist, Moses feints with his own fist, only to cunningly wrap a leg around Brook’s off-balance arm. The ranger cadet is flipped painfully onto his stomach. No sooner does he slam into the bones, saplings, and stone does Moses snatch Brook by the hair and bash his face into the strewn cave floor. “You ain’t listening, boy! Devil don’t want my heart, but he’s still plenty hungry!! HahahahaheehaheHEHAHAahAHEEheeHA!!!”

The head blow leaves Brook stunned, with rock and lunatic laughter ringing in his ears. He’s only dimly aware of his arms being pulled back and bound amid the tell-tale sound of unrolled duct tape.

Brook: Brook’s trained eyes flick over to the young bully for just a moment before affirming that he’s most likely still breathing. But it’s quickly the last thing on his mind as he turns back and everything goes wrong. His hand is caught, pulled around and onto his stomach by the military monster suddenly above him. It’s a terrifying moment and the young man’s least favorite, the restrictions of bonds pulling on his arms as he’s locked into a grapple, hurting his arm as he screams into the stone, aching and burning from the rough treatment, until he feels his hair yanked and head slammed into the floor.

GM: The sound of Moses’ laughter stops when the madman suddenly goes stiff and sniffs the air. “Candyman….” he whispers with a low hiss.

Brook, however, smells nothing but Moses’ fecal odor and the still cloying smell of blood, both animal and otherwise. But the rousing teen does hear what could be footsteps approaching the cave, the sound of multiple people crossing the creek. Perhaps it’s a trick of the cave echoes, or perhaps he’s become infected a touch of Moses’ madness. Or perhaps not.

Brook: There’s a moment of stunned silence from the boy, a breath and reevaluation as he feels his bonds get even tighter. It seems this maniac doesn’t understand as well, but before Brook can say anything, there’s a silent moment of recognition. Smoke from his flare at the mouth of the cave, hopefully a moment of checkmate, as renewed vigor and a wide crooked grin crosses the young ranger’s face.

“There are older things than your Devil, fuck-face. Hungrier things! I didn’t say he’d eat your heart, I said I would. THIS IS THE PIT AT THE CENTER OF MY FUCKING BEING, I’LL DIVE IN AND FUCKING STARE IT DOWN! I WILL FIGHT! I WILL NOT BECOME A SLAVE TO FEAR!”

Brook takes a sharp breath and screams his rage at the top of his lungs, an atavistic howl of effort and victory that’s become a recurring theme in his life as his arms bulge and strain, twisting madly, like a coyote caught in a trap. It hurts, it pops joints and threatens to pull muscles, a stinging throb through his arms before there’s a rip, a snap, and finally he tears his arms free, bashing his knuckles together and letting out another animalistic howling scream at the man, his mind slipping beyond words as he announces his entrance back into the fight.

GM: Moses’ steps back from Brook’s preternatural strength and feral rage. Slack jawed, eyes bulging, he glances to the cave’s exit and the sounds of the approaching figures, then back to the youth whose dual hearts of iron and flesh fill the cavern with the echoes of pounding hot blood and the pungent odor of predators and primal fears. Moses seems to shrink, back and away.

Brook: Brook sees that look and knows already that he’s faced down a demon and isn’t the the one who flinched. Like any predator, this hesitation is blood in the water. The half-feral teen advances an ominous step, crouched to pounce with seething heavy breaths, littering the cave floor with spittle and what blood Moses has managed to get onto the boy’s lip when his head was caved in like a melon. All the boy can think about is collapsing his chest cavity, rending his limbs, holding him down and hog-tying him to beat him with steel knuckles until backup comes.

GM: Then Nelson groans and starts to shift. The sound snatches the attention of both predators, but Moses’ reflexives prove faster. He draws a large hunting knife from behind his back and hoists up the semi-conscious jock by his neck, the knife’s blade pressed against the youth’s throat. “I’ll give you credit, boy,” Moses says with a dark smile, “But give the Devil his due.”

Nelson rouses as the cold knifepoint pricks his skin. Disoriented, the concussed youth starts to yell, but only manages a choking vomit.

Brook: Then it’s Nelson. Rage takes a sudden back seat to caution as an area around the madman is set like an electric fence, just with a knife against his classmate’s neck. Nelson is in danger, and a lot of it at that. There’s little even doctors can do for a half-severed head.

Hudson: A peal of thunder cracks outside. The accompanying flash of lightning starkly illuminates three figures.

It’s “candyman.”

His trench coat is drenched with rain and muck, his receding wind-tossed hair is blown every which way, and water drips from his face like effusively pouring sweat. The broken bits of twig, leaves, and moss scattered over his shoulders only further add to his feral mien. He is accompanied by two more Kevlar-clad figures, a man and woman with darker skin and equally soaked, muck-smeared clothing. Their leader’s countenance is grimly resolute: that of an arbiter of civilization tasked with upholding it in a wild land that knows it not. Yet the Marshal’s belt-clipped golden star, the same one worn by generations of lawmen who brought order to the Wild West, is no stranger to such places. Its five burnished points stand in eerily inverted synchrony to the feces-painted pentagram Brook encountered yesterday, and the dark cave’s hellish red light only serves to further blur the boundaries of the rain-drenched, wild-eyed figures staring one another down. Cop and criminal, lawman and murderer, man and monster.

Three guns train towards the center of Moe’s chest as Hudson takes in the situation–and the knife pressed to Nelson Judd’s throat.

Then the Marshal’s expression relaxes. It’s not quite a smile. The circumstances are too grim. The man bearing it too disheveled. But it’s something that tugs at Hudson’s lips and creases his eyelids.

“Moses. Looks like we’re just in time to see the Devil get his due.”

GM: Roughly an hour after Red Aspen failed to come in over radio, Hudson and Deputy Marshals Porter and Matlock followed Brook’s dirt bike trail into the box–canyon named Scratch’s Corral. After contacting the only in-range NPS ranger and waiting for multiple relays on the static-warbled radios, Hudson had waited only long enough for Curtis and Matthew to arrive with the three heavy-duty state police motorcycles, before leaving the Britter’s and their Blue Mooncalf dairy farm to investigate Red Aspen’s radio silence. There, the law officers had confirmed the rangers’ suspicion that lightning had fried the tower, but they had also found several other disconcerting clues.

Namely, Brook Barnes was missing, with no signs of forced entry, and a dirt bike track started from the station’s shed and lead away into dark storm-hammered paths. Deputy Lowder was left to man the station and await Mary Madcatcher’s inevitable arrival, while Hodges and Hensler returned to the Britter’s.

Hudson: To say the US Marshal was red in the face would be an understatement. Hudson’s teeth clenched and his eyes bulged as if the candy-gorging man were finally having his long-overdue heart attack. The radio in the kid’s truck was working just fine. Brook could have contacted them over that. Now, Hudson found himself having to redivert key personnel when manpower was already stretched thin, putting god knows how many peoples’ lives in danger on account of one stupid kid.

GM: It had been an ugly, rough ride from Red Aspen to Scratch’s Corral. The heavy bikes constantly threatened to slip or slide off the muddy unpaved park trails, all of which were utterly unfamiliar to the three town foreigners who were trying their utmost to simultaneously maintain control of their vehicles, follow the dirt bike tracks amid lightning and pounding rain, and somehow go as fast as possible to catch up before… before things only went to hell. More than they already were.

Now, at the entrance to the canyon, all three federal agents are drenched in rain and mud and likely unkind thoughts towards the ranger cadet who’s dragged them out here. With the help of their motorcycle’s police-grade headlamps, Hudson quickly spots the red glow of road flares silhouetting the cave-mouth. As Curtis finally catches up to the others, Cassidy nudges her boss and points up. Against the backdrop of lightning, rain, and night-black storm clouds, dozens of headlamps rim the towering canyon walls.

“We got company, boss-man,” says the Mississippi Marshal.

From this distance, Hudson can tell the headlamps belong to other motorcycles, but little else. They, unlike the cave at the back of the canyon and the creek between them, are out of reach. The arm of the law may be long, but it has its limits. Yet, despite the disconcerting and presently unreachable ring of motorbikes above the canyon, it’s the hellish-red cave light that has his ‘Little Man’ finally wake up and start yelling FIRE!

Hudson: Hudson kills his motorbike’s engine and clambers off, his already mud-soaked shoes squelching as they press into the muck. Then again, he also wishes there wasn’t a boy missing with a serial killer on the loose. The Marshal’s once-livid fury has subsided into grim determination under the storm’s relentless downpour–and has set his little man increasingly on edge. Now he’s awake and screaming his head off. Road flares. If there’s anyone who had access to those, it’s that damn kid. Hudson has a terrible, gut-wrenching sense of what he’s going to find in that cave. The motorbikes do little to set him at ease. His little man might not be screaming over those, but he’s giving a good hard frown. It’s also as Cassidy says–no time.

Never enough time.

Hudson grabs his radio with gloved but still-rain-soaked fingers and growls his latest–and potentially final–communication to Lowder. “Schofeld to Red Aspen. 10-97. 10-78. Repeat, 10-78. Send immediate backup. Kid and maybe Moses in cave. Unknown motorcycles by canyon walls. Dozens of them. Schofeld out. Schofeld out.”

GM: There’s a crackled reply on the rain-splattered police radio. The thunderstorm renders Lowder’s or some other person’s voice a static gargle, but one which Hudson’s believes acknowledges his request for back-up. “C..p.. tha…, …ho…ld…”

Hudson: The safety clicks off Hudson’s .40 S&W as the lead Marshal’s countenance settles into a grimly certain look the younger feds know all-too well. Two chunk-chunks sound from the 12-gauge Remington 870s as the three Marshals stalk towards the cave’s entrance.

GM: As Cassidy and Curtis makes visual sweeps behind their superior, the latter asks, “Mission objectives, sir?”

Hudson: Hudson stows the radio and pats the bag full of possibly futile prisoner restraints clipped to his belt. “Get the kid out safe and back to Red Aspen. Take Moses into custody, if that’s him my little man is throwing a screaming fit over. Put him down if he doesn’t come quietly.”

GM: “Yes, sir,” Curtis replies with the eager expression of a soldier ready for war.

Cassidy may or may not roll her eyes as she mutters something about ‘Rambo Commando’.

Both deputies, however, fall silent as the trio of marshals stalks stealthily across the copse and creek, stepping over downed logs while making sure they aren’t being trailed. By the time they reach the dead end of Auld Coot’s Creek, all three marshals hear the shouting. Hudson instantly identifies one of the voices as Moses’.

“Lying to me?! LYING TO ME?! ALWAYS LYING, ALWAYS WATCHING, WATCHING ME, ME, ME, MEHE, HEHEHAHAHAHAHEEHEE!!!”

The second voice is younger, less familiar, but not wholly unfamiliar either. “You think you’re special, shit-fingers!? Coyotes round these parts got the same kinda tricks!! I’ll eat your fucking heart!!!”

“You ain’t listening, boy! Devil don’t want my heart, but he’s still plenty hungry!! HahahahaheehaheHEHAHAahAHEEheeHA!!!”

“I didn’t say he’d eat your heart, I said I would. THIS IS THE PIT AT THE CENTER OF MY FUCKING BEING, I’LL DIVE IN AND FUCKING STARE IT DOWN! I WILL FIGHT! I WILL NOT BECOME A SLAVE TO FEAR!”

The violent words are matched by sounds of a physical altercation equally mad and bloodthirsty.

Hudson: That’s all Hudson needs to hear. Thunder cracks as a bolt of lightning strikes overheard—and so do the U.S. Marshals.

Hudson: Three guns train towards the center of Moe’s chest as Hudson takes in the situation–and the knife pressed to Nelson Judd’s throat.

Then the Marshal’s expression relaxes. It’s not quite a smile. The circumstances are too grim. The man bearing it too disheveled. But it’s something that tugs at Hudson’s lips and creases his eyelids.

“Moses. Looks like we’re just in time to see the Devil get his due.”

GM: Moses barks out a wild babble of laughter. With his back to the cave rock, he glances outward to the three still distant marshals. With blood and teeth streaking his beard, a gory ram-pelt wrapped haphazardly over his head, and red road-flare fog swirling around his legs, the fugitive looks nothing short of demonic.

“Candyman! Smelled you, I did!” There’s another bark of laughter. “Back away, piggies, or I gut this boy!” The knife presses harder against Nelson’s neck.

Brook: It’s the cavalry. Brook peeks over his shoulder to see the three figures, two of whom he’s very glad to see, and a third he’s… oh. Is that how it is? The dark-haired and manic-looking teen wonders for a moment if sending the rangers out everywhere but here has been the fat man’s plan, but it doesn’t matter now. He stays on guard and doesn’t say a word, waiting for an opening or a signal from the fed who’s just walked into the scene.

GM: Moses herds his knifepoint hostage out of the cave. “SQUEAL!!!! SQUEHEHAHEHAHEHEEEHAHAEAL!!”

Nelson involuntarily obliges. He tries to call out, to shout back a curse, but the knife in his neck hurts so keenly.

“I’ve got the shot, sir,” Curtis whispers to his superior, his eyes never leaving the madman.

The rain continues to pour down.

Hudson: Gears turn in the fat man’s rain-soaked head. Moses Ezekiel MacDonald is 100% certifiably and quantifiably batshit, even by Bedlam’s standards. And most Satanists’. The blood, the feces, the absence of any named demons in his ‘paintings’, the brutal murderers that lack any ritual component or identifiable religious symbolism… Moses is a being of seemingly pure, sadistic id, and it’s a wonder that he’s even capable of venerating a force beyond his own immediate, murderous gratification. There’s no reason to his actions, but there is a rhyme to them, however twisted.

It might be the only thing that has a shot of saving poor Mr. Judd’s life.

“We know you’re just going to kill him anyway, Moses,” Hudson calls out over the rain, his Glock still raised.

He meets the fugitive’s maddened eyes, then continues, “That’s what you need, someone to kill for your ritual. And you can’t do it right here, or you’d have opened Mr. Judd’s throat already. You’ve had plenty time to do that too, judging by the state he’s in. No, there’s a place you need to kill him.”

“But if you do open his throat, Moses,” Hudson continues, the rainfall steadily plunking against his leveled gun, “that’s the end. Perhaps we’ll gun you down, or perhaps we’ll haul you back to the loony bin, where you’ll get slapped in a straitjacket, thrown into a padded room, and doped up on so many meds that you’ll forget why you even wanted to come out here. Either way, that’ll be the sad end of the road for Moses Ezekiel MacDonald. No sacrifice. No ritual. Zilch.”

Hudson genuinely isn’t sure how much of what he’s saying is getting through to the lunatic, so he reiterates, “Take another step and we’ll shoot, because we know Mr. Judd won’t be coming back with you.”

“Or,” the Marshal continues, another tight almost-smile stealing across his features, “The two of us can strike a deal. Just like the one you struck with the Devil, all those years ago.”

“I’d listen to the boss-man if I were you,” Cassidy chips in, her Remington remaining fixed at Moses’ head. “It’s pretty much a no-brainer to shoot you if you’re just gonna kill the kid anyway. But maybe we can work something out.”

Curtis doesn’t spare so much as a grunt, which would be inaudible in any case over the rain, as he calmly states, “Got you right in my sights. Talk or eat lead. Your call.”

Brook: Brook listens, words slowly starting to hold meaning again for him after his slight breakdown of personality. This is too important to be selfishly angry, and the teen slowly forms a plan in his head on how he can help. Besides running the man down, which ultimately means a dead Nelson.

GM: Moses pauses against the collective words. He halts his captive roughly just outside the cave, ducking his head, so only one eye peaks out at the night-shrouded marshals. The rain spatters over them all, save for the ranger cadet still within the cave. The downpour plinks and crashes off trees, stone, and the swelling creek, occasionally swallowed up by rattling thunder.

Moses doesn’t even bother with counter threats, but instead shouts back as plain, severe, and sincere as a bullet in the brain, “Murder me, Candyman.”

“Swear on that star and your last candy bar, that you’ll let me walk a good stone’s throw, and then murder me. Do that, and I’ll plain as day let this boy go.”

Hudson: If something sounds too good to be true, it is.

Hudson’s hackles immediately rise at the offer. Even for someone as crazy as Moses Ezekiel MacDonald, it’s wholly inconsistent with his behavior until this point. No one suddenly just decides they want to die. No, Moses thinks he’ll be the sacrifice. If he dies at the same spot he means to kill Nelson Judd, he thinks that death will have lasting meaning. Revenge on the people who’ve wronged him. God only knows how, but the lunatic seems absolutely certain of it.

The only question is, is he right?

The lawman’s every instinct screams at him. This would be giving the criminal exactly what he wants, not to mention a hundred different kinds of illegal. Hudson has seen some pretty disturbing things in this town, things that make reluctant to simply scoff off Moses. But this is a boy’s life in front of him.

The rain pours down, and with a horrid feeling in his gut that such would be making his own devil’s bargain, the Marshal answers,

“I swear by my badge as a United States Marshal, and by the wet Three Musketeers bar I have in the bottom of my pocket, that I will let you walk a stone’s throw and shoot you dead if you release Mr. Judd.”

Brook: Brook narrows his eyes at the lunatic. He has no idea what Moses hopes to achieve here or what’s going on in his head, but he echoes the thoughts of the Marshal. But he reaches into his jacket and pulls the hand cannon out into view, preparing himself to see a man die. If that’s what he wants. As long as Nelson is safe, that’s all that matters right now. The boy’s hand goes steady while his heart pumps a million miles an hour at the prospect of finishing this here and now. He doesn’t say a word, but simply points his weapon at the madman’s heart, waiting for the moment Moses tries to pull himself back together to try escaping them. He remembers all-too well what’s already happened.

GM: Cassidy’s aim and arm don’t waver, but her whisper shakes, “Boss? What are you doing?”

Hudson: “Whatever it takes to save the kid,” Hudson grimly answers. “Now play along.”

GM: Her brow furrows, relaxes in relief, and then sets back into poker-face determination. “You got it, boss-man.”

Hudson: “Release Judd and we’ll shoot you dead. Glad to,” Curtis calls back.

“Fine. You’re crazy enough to die, we’ll be happy to oblige you,” Cassidy echoes.

Hudson levels a glare at Brook’s pointed weapon and loudly calls out, “Put that away, Mr. Barnes. You’re in enough trouble as it is.”

GM:LIARS!!!” shouts Moses, “AIN’T NOBODY ROUND HERE A PLAIN DEALING MAN?!!”

He forces Nelson to walk forward, using the boy as a human shield. “Kraut-licking, sonavabitch, Candyman! You think I don’t know what a face looks like when it’s squared up to murder?! Me?!”

Hudson: Hudson grimaces as the lunatic sees through him. So much for that tactic. Moses is set on blood. His or anyone’s. The Marshals can try to shoot him dead, in which case it’s entirely possible they might hit Judd or Moses will slit his throat. Or…

“Take me instead, Moses,” he calls. “I’m facing mandatory retirement in three years. One sacrifice is good as another, right?”

Both of the other Marshals offer the boss their best stunned looks.

“Boss, you’re crazy!”

“Bad idea.”

GM: Moses keeps walking forward with Nelson held at knifepoint, driving through the rain and muck. “Too old, too fat,” the lunatic yells, one bulging eye sweeping the night-shrouded Marshals. “Gimme the negro girl, Candyman!”

“The what?!” Cassidy shouts, unable to control herself.

Hudson: Well, Moses is right on those first two counts. Hudson might even laugh if a boy’s life wasn’t on the line.

“That’s up to her, Moses, though I’ll kindly ask you not to call Marshal Porter names,” the fat fed calls back.

“You’ll be the one who’s laughing when we have him in cuffs,” the Marshal quietly tells his subordinate.

GM: Moses seems confused.

Brook: Brook knows that the triple-crossed madman is just a ticking time bomb. But this is good. They have one thing over him, and that’s numbers. Hudson can sit on him if he likes. When he’s called out, he sheathes the weapon back in his coat. Then the focus is away from him. These are cops and soldiers, and the thought puts an idea in the young man’s head. It’s stupid stupid idea, but the only one that sounds as though it’s going to work as he watches Moses scream at the cops in front of him. Hunters have something even more important. They have patience. They have stealth.

The crouching young ranger uses the cover of the rain to creep to the lunatic, evading everyone’s notice before it’s time to strike. The adults are yelling about sacrificing themselves and who will go. It’s time.

Brook’s hands dart up out of blackness. One grabs Moses’ knife arm. The other wraps around his neck, getting a solid grip on lunatic in the rain. Brook just hopes his gloves don’t fail him.

GM: Brook could almost swear he sees a bat soar past him just he grabs hold of the homicidal maniac. Moses gives a strangled scream, and in the storm, the lunatic, the concussed jock, and the ranger cadet all find themselves tangled together, a lightning-lit knot of limbs wherein lurks a deadly sharp knife.

For the federal agents still several yards away, it’s almost impossible to see what is happening. Only the smoky road flare light catches them in frenetic, pugilistic silhouette.

Hudson: Even dim as that light is, and miserable as the conditions are, the Marshals’ aim is trained at Georgia’s Federal Law Enforcement Training Center for 21 weeks, and true as their starred badges’ golden gleam. A single silhouette is yet distinct. The one with but a single arm.

The Marshals don’t waste a second. Three deafeningly loud roars split the air like thunderbolts.

Brook: Brook looks up just in time to see raising guns. Now it’s up to his luck and the skill of these people. He closes his eyes a moment before three cracks of lightning hit something very close to him, and very near him.

GM: The bullseye precise salvo manages not only to avoid the innocent teens, but squarely strike Moses’ sole arm as it tries to raise up its knife to plunge into one of the boys.

But he never has the chance. The three shots eviscerate Moe’s one arm, tearing it off the shoulder and rending its length into a pulp that showers the grapplers. Moses’ cries cut the sky like lightning, nearly blinding in their pain.

Nelson half-drops, half–falls away, shouting and skidding back away as fast as he can, even as droplets of flesh and blood mingle with the rain and fall over and into Brook’s eyes and mouth and body.

Moses collapses hard.

Brook: Brook’s eyes open just in time to see everything, red tinted or not, as what’s left of the arm comes flying off in horrific fashion and hits the wet floor of Scratch’s Corral. There’s a sudden weight and sickening churn in his stomach, but he ignores it as bodies start sliding. First Nelson. Then Moses. It looks like it’s over, but… it’s not.

His anger returns, not near as much as it once was, but it’s there. Brook pulls out and tosses his revolver over towards the Marshals just in case the arm grows back too fast. Moses has seen it, after all. But after that, the teen descends on the inmate, wrapping his arms tight around him before he can recover. They have to dog-pile him! Cuff him and wrap him up! Arm or no, the teen bear-hugs Moses to the ground and yells,

MARSHAL HUDSON! QUICKLY!! HE’LL GROW IT BACK, COME HELP ME TIE HIM UP!”

GM: “Kid’s in shock,” Curtis replies to his boss.

Hudson: Hudson nods absently in agreement and picks up his radio as the three Marshals briskly stride over. “Schofeld to Red Aspen. 10-95. Repeat, 10-95. Over.” Whatever state Brook may be in, Moe’s going to need immediate first aid if he’s to have any hope of surviving–assuming he isn’t dead already.

GM: Cassidy strides over, shotgun in hand, and checks on the downed asylum escapee. “He ain’t going anywhere in his condition, kid, except the morgue.”

Hudson: Hudson kneels down and feels Moses’ neck for a pulse.

GM: It’s difficult with the manic teen still trying to hold down the dying, armless man. The ground is slick with blood, which continues to pour from Moses’ arm… hole.

Hudson: “Mr. Barnes, get off him,” Hudson snaps. The Marshal rips a strip of fabric off his soaked longcoat and tightly wraps it around Moses’ arm-hole to staunch the bleeding. The improvised tourniquet is quite crude, and utterly insufficient, but it’s a start.

GM: In Brook’s unhinged state, with the taste of blood and human flesh still on his lips, he feels the jerks of Moses’ death throes. Each time, he expects to see the man rise, to inexplicably start growing a new arm and try to murder than all… but none of that happens. After repeated prodding by the adult federal agents, the teen slowly realizes that he’s bear-hugging an old, armless, dying man in the bloodied, rain-drenched grass and rubble.

Brook: Brook slowly releases his grip on the man as the others come around him. He spits to the side and looks Moses over. It’s not growing back. Of course. Maybe it’s… maybe he turned whatever it was off, after saying he was going to die? Maybe it was voluntary. The teen knows that he isn’t insane, this is a ploy to get out alive, and the three cops are falling for it. That’s fine. That’s okay. Brook sits up on the escapee’s lower body and reaches over his shoulder, rips out the medkit he’d packed and puts it down on Moses’ chest, so that the Marshals can work with something other than nothing.

“Are you all certified? I can help!”

Hudson: “Oh, you’ve helped MORE than enough already, Mr. Barnes!” the fat Marshal barks in a tone that does not sound at all complimentary as he frantically works to save the dying man’s life.

Brook: Brook is off the man the moment the fat white Marshal insults him. This is where the young man curses that first part, treated like a burden despite the fact he was here defending Nelson before they ever showed up! And he even got here by himself, no partner and no city police training. He leaves them the medical kit and goes over to Nelson as he wakes up.

GM: The police radio crackles to life. This time it’s a male voice and one less warbled by static, “Schofeld, th..s…Red As…n. Skinny Chet’s… the com. 10-4 on 10…, will 10-5. Confirm… 10-52. Repeat… 10-52? Madcatcher and…. are 10-76 to… but please give me a 10-20. Repeat… 10-20, Over.”

Hudson: Hudson snatches back up the radio. “Schofeld to Red Aspen. We are at Scratch’s Corral and imminently en route back to station. Prisoner in critical condition. 10-52. Repeat, 10-52. Over.”

GM: The radio reply is quick. “10-4, Scho…, will 10-5, Out.”

Meanwhile, Curtis looks over Nelson with a penlight.

“Wh-where am I? Wh-what the fuck?!”

Nelson’s blue, asymmetrically sized eyes find Brook in the darkness, “Br-brooks? Is that you, man?”

Brook: Brook shows his face in the dark and nods. “Backup is here, Nelson. Hang in there, this guy will take care of you!”

Hudson: Good enough. Hudson glances at the teen and lets Curtis take care of that. He motions to Cassidy, and the two frantically, desperately spend the next five minutes yanking Moses MacDonald back from the jaws of death. The night tries to hide the worst of the blood, pain, and sweat, and the rain does its best to wash away the stains. But some memories are no so easily rinsed from one’s mind.

Brook: It’s a tense next few minutes, Brook rushes out to get his Dirt bike, hoping they can use it to help, but other than that…he just watches. Half of his hopes they save him, the part he wants to listen to. Another part reminds him what happened, what his head was like, and how this has to be a ruse. He knows they’ll all rescue him.

GM: “Let’s not do… that again,” Cassidy eventually says to Hudson when they finally stabilize the now twice-amputated fugitive.

Hudson: “If it’s never again, Cassidy, that’ll be too soon,” the lead Marshal agrees as the two gingerly move the bandaged, dying, but at least stabilized Moses towards the parked motorcycles. He sharply motions for the others to follow.

GM: “I think the white kid’s got a concussion or TBI, sir,” Curtis says to his superior as he and Brook help Nelson limp across the rough terrain.

Hudson: Hudson pulls out the belly chain he’d intended to restrain Moses with. “All right. Cassidy, tie him to your waist. Curtis, let’s tie Moe to yours. He’s in no condition to make this kind of ride right now, but I don’t see much other choice.”

GM: Nelson’s speech is slurred, but he protests and says he wants to ride with Brook. Indeed, ever since coming to, the disoriented youth hasn’t wanted the ranger cadet out of his sight. He repeatedly asks where they are, why everyone’s here, and what is going on, but it’s one particular passing remark that strikes Brook the most oddly.

It’s after Nelson realizes that both he and Brook are splattered with blood, that he jokes about how the pair “really are blood brothers,” and holds up his knife-scarred thumb. And Brook realizes that he’s not joking.

Hudson: Hudson shakes his head as he finishes tying the belly chain between Curtis and the newly arm-less Moses. “Can’t do, Mr. Judd. You’ll get to see him back at Red Aspen.”

GM: With the trooper headlamps on, Brook shockingly notes that Nelson’s thumb-scar eerily resembles his own, a self-inflicted injury dating back to late elementary school.

Hudson, and his retinue, meanwhile note that the thunderstorm is passing, and with it, the ring of biker-lights above the canyon pull away, one by one, the roar of their engines creating one last peal of thunder.

Brook: Brook keeps near Nelson, knowing that he’s having a hard time. Just going through all that, at least he’s alive. Covered in blood, bruised, battered, almost nude, and… scarred? The young Indian’s eyes widen as he sees the thumb scar, and worse yet, Nelson knows what it means. Only him and Danny did this together, how could their life-long bully know about it? Let alone have it!?

He doesn’t say anything and pats Nelson’s shoulder for his denied request. He finds his revolver on the ground, puts it in its holster, and mounts up on his dirt bike. He’s ready to go. Ready to get the fuck out of here.

Kurt: Mind’s Eye


Friday evening, 10 October 1998

GM: Several hours after his “accident” with his sister, Kurt is alone (and clean) again. With visiting hours ending at 8 PM, Amy (who certainly has not forgiven her brother) succeeds in convincing their mother to go home and rest for the night. Arlene only relents when her kids remind her of their invalid patriarch. Kurt’s mom promises to return in the morning.

Kurt: Kurt bids his family goodbye, mixed with an endless amount of apologies for his sister. He is pretty embarrassed.

GM: “Don’t worry about your sister,” his mother tells him before she leaves. “She’s fine.” She kisses him good night (while Amy gives him the finger), and they depart. Kurt can only assume they all use Rick’s vehicle. But in their wake, the hospital seems colder. The nurses dim the post-visitation lights, and a shawl of silence descends over Kurt’s room and the surrounding medical wing.

Kurt: Kurt lays on his side and resumes staring at the curtained section. “Sorry about earlier,” he says, remembering his ‘roommate’. He then closes his eyes and attempts to go to sleep.

GM: As the curtains of consciousness close, Kurt’s tempest-tossed psyche intuitively seeks safer, calmer waters. In his dreams, his mind casts back to how things were. Before.

The minutes, hours, and days peel back like an overripe fruit, exposing both sweetness and the seeds of the present tomorrows.

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Hazel: Attila Awakens


GM: Such wildering scenes, such flitting shapes
As feverish dreams display:
What if those fancies still increase
And reason quite decay?

GM: Our life is twofold; Sleep hath its own world,
A boundary between the things misnamed
Death and existence: Sleep hath its own world,
And a wide realm of wild reality,
And dreams in their development have breath,
And tears, and tortures, and the touch of joy;
They leave a weight upon our waking thoughts,
They take a weight from off waking toils,
They do divide our being; they become
A portion of ourselves as of our time,
And look like heralds of eternity;
They pass like spirits of the past—they speak
Like sibyls of the future; they have power—
The tyranny of pleasure and of pain;
They make us what we were not—what they will,
And shake us with the vision that’s gone by,
The dread of vanished shadows—Are they so?
Is not the past all shadow?—What are they?
Creations of the mind?—The mind can make
Substances, and people planets of its own
With beings brighter than have been, and give
A breath to forms which can outlive all flesh.


A slumbering thought, is capable of years,
And curdles a long life into one hour.

GM: Awareness is the enemy of sanity,
For once you hear the screaming, it never stops.

Day ? Month ? Year?

GM: The prison of her body cannot contain the madness of her mind. It blots out reality, casting her in the blackness of sanity eclipsed. Yet, in the darkness, there is sound. It fills the abyss: a terrible static. Endless, eternal, evermore.

But something else emerges from the static insanity: a signal. Its piercing tone makes her ravaged psyche bleed, but it is all she has–all she has save the dark static of her soul.

Following, clinging to the tone, her psyche hears the signal transform. As it does, the static recedes. Not away from her, but deeper inside her. But it is quieter. The other sound breaks free of its tonal chrysalis. It unfurls its audial wings and alights upon Hazel’s senses. The echo of its resonant wings becomes a mechanical voice:

“You have a collect call from–”

Another flutter of audial wings changes the tone to something more organic, yet still alien:

“–The colors of the future.”

Another echo, and the return of the mechanical voice:

“Will you accept the charges?”

Hazel: “Charges? Color? What charge–” It’s dark. Dark, like her hair is dark. Her hair is dark and black, and it’s good that it is, that she can’t see the hand that’s running over it, that’s running over her face, giggling, but there isn’t supposed to be a hand there, and she knows why, if she could just see if it wasn’t dark, she’d see–

“I accept! I accept! I accept!”

GM: There is a click as the noise-moth dies. It plummets through the abyss, descending in a resonant spiral. Around and around. But its death-throes create an audial pathway for Hazel’s psyche to follow in the maelstrom of black madness. It leads her to a keyhole.

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Inside is another abyss, black and lightless. But its darkness is not inviolate. As her mind presses to view inside its recesses, she becomes aware of numbers falling.

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Their light cracks the stygian insanity. Ones and zeros. 1s and 0s. Streaming like green rain. A dichotomy upon which the universe can be expressed and programmed. But then the numbers shatter. Euclidean time-space fractures as the illuminated numbers disintegrate and transmogrify. They bend and break, shift and shuffle, merge and meld. And as the semiotic alchemy proceeds, Hazel senses new patterns. Sacred geometry. It burns like the kiss of the seraphim. Circles. Spheres. Nine and one. Ten. One and zero. One.

AWAKEN.
AWAKEN.
AWAKEN.
AWAKEN.
AWAKEN.

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The images flicker like the closing and opening of the inner eye.

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Keyhole_symbols.png

Keyhole_numbers.png

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Hazel: Numbers. There’s logic in numbers, the universal language everything is built off of, but it’s not the language she speaks. She’s never spoken the same language as the rest of the universe, never been tuned into the same frequency. The spheres, the letters. Symbols and visual aids she understands. They are her own her own order, her own 1s and 0s.

The flickering stream of numbers disappears. There is only the kaleidoscope-like spinning and rotating of the geometric patterns, whose depths she already seeks to plumb and configure.

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GM: AWAKEN

And with that choice, her inner eye opens with white-fire burning away the blackness! Its gnostic flame illuminates the symbolism of the spheres: a sacred geometry. As the apocalyptic forms and geometric ratios unfold in her mind’s eye, her understanding of the secret universe unfolds, enlarges, alters, and awakens.

She beholds the Tree. The Tree, map of Transcendental Existence, unfolding from the Primordial Unity to the Infinite diversity of Manifested Reality, expressed according to a mathematical progression based upon the square root of three, the Metaphysical Trinity: Dynamism, Stasis, and Entropy. The Fruit of the Tree, its sephira or spheres are nine and one. The crown of Prime, the foot of Matter, and the other sacred seven between them: Life, Spirit, Mind, Force, Space, Time, Fate, and the tenth transcendental fruit that remains untasted, unknown, but not forbidden. This last fruit of Consciousness is the key to Superconsciousness to which all existence seeks to ascend.

But it awaits the one who walks within the Vesica Piscis–which signifies the mediation of two distinct entities; the complementariness of polar opposites, as when two extremes complete and depend upon one another to Exist: the Dialectic Monism. One circle may signify the Masculine, the other the Feminine. The Sleeper and the Awakened. The Sound and the Silence. The One and the Null, that in Grand Unity is the Womb of Quintessence and the Child of Ascension. In those gnostic-lit circles and its supernal mandorla, both Sleeper and Awakened perceive themselves for the first time.

Themselves.

They are the Key. Ascension awaits Them.

Atilla Awakens.

Autumn 1977

GM: As the door unlocks, the black abyss is replaced by a white one. Static returns, but it is silent. Outside it is snowing. Voices, male and female, break the white static’s silence.

“Slow down. You’re going too fast.”

“I’m ten under the speed limit.”

“I know. It’s just–”

Time and space fold into a singularity whose violent dissolution creates echoes that tear through their lives, taking, altering, transforming. Gravity lets go first. And they fly. The stoplight changes without warning, turning from its faint, safe green to a lurid black that devours the wintry light. Lydia slams on the brakes as another vehicle tears through the intersection. But the brakes have nothing to grip in the icy blizzard-rimmed roads of Witiko Falls. Their car slips and begins to spin. Around and around, like a reverse Flower of Life whose sudden, violent terminus is inevitably death.

The final impact causes the car to wrap around an old black-iron light-pole that bends, half-ripping from the ground. It crashes into a power-line. The cable snaps, showering the vehicle with its sparks that instantly evaporate the falling snow. One end writhes like a black dragon, spitting electric flame from its frayed mouth. Sound finally catches up like thunder after lightning. Glass breaks, tires screech. Metal groans as it painfully contorts in ways it never should. A family screams. And then there’s the deafening car horn that will not stop. That will not ever be consoled.

Hazel’s mother does not move. The airbag cradles her unconscious face, spatters of blood and glass shards riddling her clothes and long black hair.

Hazel: MOM!

Hazel knows how this plays out. Knows her mother survives. She’s heard the story, in some form or other, a million times. But hearing isn’t seeing. And her mom. Who’s unconscious. Hazel always thought…

Where’s her dad? Her other dad?

She knows there’s nothing she can do. But this is her first chance to see him for herself. Did he have any… last moment with her? How did he die? And who was in that other car?

GM: “Hazel…”

It’s his voice–a voice she’s since repressed. Its familiarity is reminiscent of a childhood blanket rediscovered in an old attic. But the pain in his voice is also all-too naked. He tries to swallow it. Without an airbag, her father’s face struck the glovebox in the impact, shattering his constantly worn sunglasses. As the shards fall away, they reveal a man with sallow–pale skin, short–cropped hair prematurely marked with white around his temples and forelock like stray microcosmic lightning through midnight. His features are a mix of oriental and occidental. But his facial appearance is most strongly defined by what it lacks: eyes. Born with the rare congenital defect known as anophtalmia, Hazel’s father turns to her with his eyeless face. A small rivulet of blood runs down his cheek like a tear he cannot cry. “It’s okay… to be afraid.”

Hazel: He was… blind? Mom never mentioned that. He’s almost surely accustomed to it and has far graver concerns right now, so it seems almost pointless, but… Hazel feels sorry for how he can’t see. No, it’s not pointless. It’s as Mom said. Being only human.

GM: He reaches a hand to his wife. Touching her in a way that is tender but otherworldly, as if his haptics transcend mere touch.

Hazel: It’s such a minor thing, though, against what is to come. Why is it what’s making her cry? Would be making her cry, if she had eyes to weep with? I’m sorry. I…

GM: The crushed passenger door is bent around and through her father. He coughs, and something red and bubbling flecks his lips. “Are you okay… Hazel?” He turns, painfully, and reaches for her.

Hazel: Yes, yes, I’m fine, I know I survive, it’s YOU who’s dying! It’s you you should be worrying about! Damn it all, where’s the police, where’s–where’s Dad–my other da… where!?

GM: His fingers stretch as if to feel her face, her hands.

Hazel: Her mind blinks away imagined tears. Why couldn’t he have gotten here FASTER!?

GM: The horn keeps screaming. Sparks snake and sizzle the air, evaporating the blizzard in gouts of white vapor like the breath of a demon. Above, the baleful stoplight keeps ‘shining’ black, drinking in the pale wintry light. “Hazel… Daddy needs your help… can you… reach me?”

Hazel: I’m here, I’m here, I’m… A long pause. Is he addressing… her?

GM: His fingers plead and struggle to find her.

Hazel: No, it can’t be, he’s addressing the three-year-old who… where even is she?

GM: They realize that she is them, and they are she, at least in part. Hazel is witnessing these events from her three–year–old eyes, experiencing the tortured emotions of her old selves and new.

Hazel: Hazel’s only three, she was always clumsy, but… now is not the time to fall back on her disabilities. She’s comparatively uninjured by the crash, thanks to sitting in the back and in a booster seat. Her tiny, trembling fingers hit the release. She leans forward, her hands seeking out her father’s.

GM: As the click echoes like another key turning in her mind, there is another sound that both she and her father hear.

Hazel: Tears run down her youthful features as her mouth soundlessly moves. It’s still a little while before she utters her first words. No… this isn’t just her, this is me. SAY SOMETHING, you little shit! SAY SOMETHING! she screams.

GM: The black car that almost hit them, that made them mortally swerve and crash, catches on fire. Its front is smashed into a local downtown antique shop–its driver lays impaled on the broken shards of the shattered windshield. As the flames lick up from the hood, the figure starts to scream. Hazel notes that the figure does not bleed–It leaks. Something oily and black rather than red issues from its torn frame. Its black suit, white dress shirt, and tie are torn, revealing something wrong inside its chest cavity. Gears, pistons, cogs, and strange inhuman apparatus. A gust of white wind rips off its black hat, exposing similarly bizarre elements. The man-mockery screams again: but only deafening static comes out of its pipe-throat.

Her father looks up at the unsound. Fear might wash over his eyes if he had any, but his jaw clenches. “Hazel… close your eyes… don’t… watch…”

Hazel: Somehow, she always knew that it wasn’t natural. What happened that night. On another occasion, she might investigate the other driver more closely. No, she will still investigate him. It. But that doesn’t matter, not right now. She looks up at the brave, blind, and doomed man who was her first father through blurred eyes.

SAY SOMETHING! Just… just SAY SOMETHING!

She can feel the words, tries to make them well up in her younger self’s throat. She’s physically capable of speech! She’s…

This is just a mental block, like the anxiety attacks! Say something, you stupid little aspie! SAY SOMETHING!!!!

GM: The unman lifts its body from the burning car, its oil-blood leaking down its torn open chest. Its clothes catch fire, but it stalks uncaring to the Calloways’ car–and its occupants. To Hazel.

“Close your eyes!” her father shouts.

Hazel: Hazel pulls at her younger self’s jaw with a set of metaphysical pliers. She knows what happens to her father, even if she’s no longer sure how it happens. But there’s something she can give him before he dies. Maybe it’ll grant him some measure of happiness, however briefly, before he… NOW!!!!

Her eyes clamp shut. But her mouth forces open.

“Dad…”

GM: Although her physical eyes shut and block out the horror of the approaching thing, her immaterial, awakened eyes remain open. They watch as her father’s fingers click and shift in prolix patterns like a programmer performing a yantra-esque hack into something. His shape begins to transform. The light around him dims like a reserve halo. Then, he is illuminated by a field of tiny lights as if his features are cast in the glow of a giant monitor.

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As the transformation continues, a mask appears over his face, its ancient features resembling a Japanese Noh mask. Her awakened eyes can taste the digital magic, the fruit of the Tree, as her father reaches for those lights. He grunts from the strain, blood beginning to leak from the painted nostril of his Noh mask.

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The unman reaches the car. It rips off Hazel’s door like wet tissue paper.

Hazel: Damn it, I can help, I can help, I can see the Tree too…!

GM: Bound by father–daughter bonds she will later forget, the three–year–old keeps her eyes shut, blocking out the sight of the thing as it goes to reach for her.

That’s when the snapped power-line comes alive and whips around the unman’s ankles, dragging it back away from the car. Her father’s mask and lights flash brightly, his fingers flickering as he grunts and coughs. The frayed, sparking ends of the power-line rear up like a snake. It fangs the unman’s exposed clockwork heart, pouring a million volts of electric venom into Hazel’s would-be attacker. The massive discharge causes the downtown’s electric boxes and electric network to spark and black out. The unman writhes, its gaping mouth-pipe screaming static so loud that it breaks windows.

Hazel: He saved me. He died saving me. He…

GM: The stoplight fries. Its blacklight dies. The writhing stops. The static recedes. The car horn becomes silent. Unconsoled, but silent. In the stark quiet that follows, Hazel can hear the snowflakes fall from the heavens. With her window ripped off, she feels their icy touch and the biting cold wind.

“Hazel…” Her father coughs, badly, painfully, and there is the sound of movement. Maybe something tearing. His fingers brush her face. “My dream… Hazel… can you… do something… for Daddy?” His fingers gently touch her face, as if to read her gestures.

Hazel: Her tiny hands brush back. Yes, yes, anything, while there’s still time…

GM: “We’re going to… play a… game…” There’s a wet, ragged cough, followed by a wheezing sucking sound. “Hide… and… seek… just keep… your eyes… closed…”

Hazel: A game? This isn’t any time for games! He needs help, NOW, before…

GM: “I… have to… go… away…” Another shudder, cough, and visceral sucking sound. “But… you’ll… find me… you were… a…ways… be…t… at… se…k…ng.” His fingers touch her lips, pushing gently at a corner to ‘feel’ her smile. “Jus… list…n… lis…n… for… the col…rs…” Hazel’s awakened, wide-open inner eye watches as the reflective transphysical lights return. They flicker soft and dim like digital fireflies.

Hazel: This word doesn’t take any great effort to coax forth in her younger self. “No!” A new wave of tears runs past her still-closed eyes as she sniffles, “No… Da… no! Don’t go! No! Don’t go!” He can’t go. Please, no.

GM: “Th… c…l…rs… of… th… f…tur…” His hand falls away from her tear-wet face. The lights die. All save one. Its tiny, fragile light leaps like microcosmic lighting, disappearing into the wiring of the nearby payphone.

Her father breathes no more. Little Hazel sees none of it. There’s only the terrible absence. The silence of his voice. The abyss that will forever remain between her and his loving touch.

Hazel: No! It’s not… if he had the power to, WHY did he… could he let… they could’ve made this right! They could’ve fixed this! Somehow! Did he… did he even get to hear her? Or was it all something she imagined up, in hopes of granting some measure of last happiness to a tragically doomed man?

GM: Hazel’s only answer is the silent, white-snow static that falls from the sky.

Hazel: Find me.

Yes, yes, he’s right, she’s always been good at finding things, at picking up patterns, she can find this… these….. colors? She can find them, whatever they are. Wherever they are. She just… has… to… wake up! AGAIN!

GM: As the three-year-old Hazel cries and shivers, the colors of the past and present bleed together in flashing reds and blue. But the white-cold static washes out all shades and sounds.

Brook, Hudson: A Golden Star


Thursday night, 9 October 1998

GM: As the marshals and rangers rush Moses from Auld Coot’s Creek to Red Aspen and then to Mount Pelion General Hospital, life and death race each other like Melanion and Atalanta. The latter is far too fleet and tireless for the former to truly defeat, but delay is possible–if one possesses a golden apple.

Their siren-accompanied ‘sprint’ ends with Moses and Nelson being separately spirited away by over-worked, under-staffed medical personnel, who transport them into the tragedy-tainted bowels of MPGH’s trauma center. Amidst the initial tumult of medical questions, alarms, demands, and activity, there are few immediate answers. Nelson seems stable, physically at least. Moses is anything but stable, physically or otherwise. The former is examined and given preliminary treatment, but is eventually transferred to the intensive care unit. The latter undergoes a forequarter amputation as MPGH’s surgeons attempt to once again play, or perhaps thwart, god.

After some heated, if swift arguments, those same would-be-gods kick out all non-medical individuals from the hectic, already cramped surgery room, or at least they try. Eventually, they concede to letting a single marshal remain. It’s a tangible sign of everyone’s weariness when Cassidy doesn’t even roll her eyes when ‘Rambo Commando’ volunteers for the assignment.

As the rest are shuffled out into the busy trauma center hallway, a gurney rushes past, escorted by a cluster of grim-faced nurses and physicians. The marshals and rangers hardly have time to register the violently writhing, heavily strapped-down man that is foaming at the mouth and screaming incomprehensible obscenities. As the gurney and medical staff races past, the law officers hear the trailing echoes as the ER nurses take bets on how many more “dusted angels will be booking rooms tonight at the Mount Pelion Hotel.”

Brook himself is ushered into a small examination room, where he is summarily assessed by a triage nurse. The nurse is thorough but devoid of any bedside manner as she inspects Brook like he is just another sugar beet along a very long and very full quality control conveyor belt. She clicks off her pen-light after checking his pupillary response. Her prognosis is terse as she hands his hovering mother his discharge papers: “Sufficient. Please vacate the room.”

The entire affair has Mary on edge, like a bear pacing in a cage that smells wrong and is too small. These aren’t her people. These aren’t her woods. “Does he need to… take anything?” the usually stoic woman asks as she lingers in the room, despite the nurse’s all-but-shooing gestures.

The triage nurse spares a single last glance at the blood-splattered teen. “Yes, a shower.”

As the adoptive mother and son are hurried out, back into the hallway, they find the marshals filling in the previously unreachable Undersheriff Bauman on the night’s events. “We expected you would come through the ER entrance,” Deputy Marshal Porter says cooly, “Rather then the interior elevator.”

Harvey doesn’t answer, particularly as he spots Mary and Brook. “He okay?” the ‘Sheriff of Witiko Falls’ asks the chief park ranger. Mary nods solemnly, if thankfully. Brook, meanwhile, is struck by how haggard the undersheriff looks. Gone is his typical ‘aw shucks’ smile. Instead, he looks like he’s lost a bucket of blood–although his uniform is only smeared with a handful. Indeed, other than being stained and blanched, the man’s uniform and body seem hale.

Hudson: Haggard is a fitting description for all the lawmen present. Hudson, in contrast, is merely (at least mostly) physically tired and disheveled. The chief marshal’s clothes are smeared with blood too, from those frantic moments providing first aid to Moses, and his rain-soaked, tattered longcoat remains spattered with mud, though he has since brushed off the twigs and leaves formerly decorating his shoulders. The night has been so long. It’s almost over, which makes the ‘almost’ before ‘over’ feel twice as long.

GM: As if voicing that very sentiment, Maxwell breaks in, “Boss, I’m gonna see if they have one of those coffee vending machines. You want me to get you a candy bar or something?”

Hudson: Hudson reaches into his coat pocket and withdraws an equally soaked-looking blue and orange Butterfingers bar. The candy inside is little better than mush. “These smokes are wet,” the marshal remarks, half to himself. “A Baby Ruth would be just the thing, Max.”

He lied to Moses, back there at Scratch’s Corral. It wasn’t a Three Musketeers bar he was swearing over. He might laugh about that another time.

GM: “You got it, boss,” Maxwell replies. Cassidy waves her colleague off before he can even ask. Maxwell then leaves, seemingly all-too happy to leave before another storm breaks.

Brook: Brook is nearly silent the entire time he’s in the hospital. He’d rode the way here on his bike, and now he sat coated in another man’s blood and viscera while the world around him just seemed as though it was coated in a thin film of muted un-importance. He feels filthy, and pissed off, in equal measures. He slides off the table when the nurse excuses them, and walks past his fretting mother into the hall, not even able to enjoy the sight of her out of her element. Harvey is the stand-out, the only thing right now that feels past the film, though he barely hears his words.

“Undersheriff. Why do you look like hell?”

GM: Brook’s query seems to slide right off Harvey’s square chin. Instead of answering the boy, he turns back to Mary and Hudson. “Chief, Marshal, I appreciate being appraised of the situation, but you’ll have to forgive me. If you need anything else tonight from the Sheriff’s Department, contact dispatch.” There’s almost a ‘please’, but not quite.

Hudson: Hudson merely nods in simultaneous answer, understanding, and farewell. Whatever is on the town lawman’s mind, he’s obviously had a trying night of his own. If it were relevant to Moses MacDonald, he’d have shared it.

Brook: Brook doesn’t take being ignored very well, muttering ‘sure’ under his breath as he turns and eases himself down onto the chair, clasping his hands together and staring at the floor. “Can we leave now? I want to wash the taste of arm flesh out of my mouth.”

Hudson: Hudson turns to Mary and her boy as the undersheriff moves to leave. “Mr. Barnes, go take a shower and change into some clean clothes. I have a few things to talk over with your mother. And with you, when you’re out.”

GM: Mary starts to nod farewell to Harvey, but stops upon hearing Hudson’s orders. She turns to face the mustachioed marshal, a brick wall more than flesh. “No, we go home. No more words tonight.”
She places a thick, protective hand on Brook’s neck, half-helping him rise, half-ensuring he doesn’t bolt.

Hudson: Hudson looks the bear-ish woman over, then gets right to the point. “All right. We’ll do it that way. Mr. Barnes, give me your hands. You’re under arrest.” The fat marshal removes a pair of rain-slick handcuffs from his belt and looks expectantly towards Brook.

Brook: Brook looks between the mother scruffing him, and the fat man holding out the cuffs. What respect he won in the valley on the valley bordering on being lost. “I pick neither.” he grunts, gently pushing away his mother’s hand and giving Hudson a sharp glare. “If you want to talk, let’s go out to the parking lot and talk in the truck. Now.”

Hudson: “This isn’t a choice, Mr. Barnes,” Hudson replies coldly. “Will you come quietly, or do you want to face a ‘resisting arrest’ charge too after Marshal Porter and I have no choice but to employ force?”

GM: Mary pushes herself once again between Hudson and her son, her stolid frame physically denying either a glimpse of the other. “You aren’t arresting my boy.”

Seeing the rising confrontation, the undersheriff sighs heavily as his elevator opens then shuts. Brook sees him stalking back toward the cluster of law officials.

Cassidy’s hand, meanwhile, dips to her holster.

Hudson: “I am arresting your boy, Mrs. Madcatcher, for God only knows how many counts tonight of obstructing a public officer in the execution of his duties. This is a federal case and the jurisdiction belongs to my people. Do you want to fight this?” Hudson asks the chief park ranger levelly, his stare exhausted but unwavering.

Brook: Brook snaps. Seeing the tension, him bereft of choice once again. The walls seem to close in on him as everyone makes choices for him and tries to hold him down. “THAT IS ENOUGH!” he bellows, a solid hand on his mother’s shoulder. He’s gotten so big, still scraps of tape on his arms as he steps around his mother and…presents his wrists to the Marshal. “Go home. I’ll be back, as always,” he barks, shaking his wrists at the fat man. “Hurry up!”

Hudson: Yet even as Brook freely proffers his hands, it is not the boy, but his mother, upon whom Hudson’s gaze remains fixed. The marshal’s little man has woken back up and has one clear word to yell in his ear: ‘danger!’. Madcatcher doesn’t seem like she wants to hurt anyone, but…

Brook: Brook feels no weight on his shoulders as the scene plays out. The world still fees behind that thin sheet of grime. But he’s too much an animal of Witiko Falls to not know when violence is afoot. He plants his foot just enough behind him to turn to restrain his mother on a dime.

Hudson: “Mrs. Madcatcher, your boy is under arrest, which also puts him under our custody and protection. You have my word as a Marshal, and as a grandfather who can only imagine what mental hell you’ve gone through these past few hours, that I will allow no one to hurt him,” Hudson states. His words are gentle but unwaveringly firm, as if he is talking to a dangerously agitated bear. Which, he frankly supposes, he rather is. The fat lawman grimaces inwardly at the prospect of further violence, but his aching muscles are ready for it.

Cassidy, sensing the change in her boss’ demeanor, reflexively tenses at that same prospect. “Ma’am, please let your boy come quietly.”

GM: Hudson feels it first, like a tornado that’s about to destroy his home but then just… dissipates. Cassidy ‘s heart eases too when she sees the black thunder fade from Mary’s eyes, then retreat completely as she bows her head like broken mountain.

Harvey halts, or at least slows, his rushing advance. The man seems to similarly deflate with a not quite thankful as much as tiredly defeated sigh.

When Mary raises her head, there is something broken inside her voice, despite still being as hard as granite. “I have your word, marshal. Or I’ll have your hide.”

Brook: As Brook sees as things start to wind down, the deputy’s little toadies cooling off just enough that the young man’s eyes turn back to Hudson. With that yell earlier, a little bit of the anger roiling in his gut releases enough that he can accept the situation.

Hudson: “I don’t doubt that, Mrs. Madcatcher,” Hudson answers. The tension in his jaw relaxes but the exhaustion in the lawman’s eyes does not abate as he continues, “We’re going to take Brook down to the police station, where he’ll spend the night. He can take a shower and change into some clean clothes before we leave. Tomorrow morning we’ll drive out to Sandpoint, where we’ll see the judge for a warrant. It’ll be in his and the DA’s hands what comes next.”

GM: Hudson’s words hit Mary like bullets shot into black cave-water. They strike and make noise, but their impact and depth are fathomless. Slowly, she turns in the cramped hallway to embrace her adopted son. Madcub may be a few hairs taller than Madcatcher, but the latter is far thicker, made of far denser muscles, gristle, and bone that have been compacted with age, toil, and hardship that only certain mothers know. “Son,” she whispers deeply, “I’ll free you. I’ll dig up the Great Root if I must. Be strong.”

She then releases her son and walks away. Mary Madcatcher is not one to make idle promises. Nor is she one to wait when work needs done.

Brook: Brook turns to his mother and returns her hug in kind, weakly, and whispers back, “The root was pulled long ago. But I saved a life from what crawled up from the hole, Mom. I’ll be home soon,” he mutters. “I love you. Get some rest. I’ll be home.”

When he turns around, he holds back out his wrists. “I hope you know what you’re doing, Deputy. This feels wrong.”

Hudson: “And perhaps you, Mr. Barnes, should for once trust that the adults do know what they’re doing,” the marshal replies as the two lead him down the hall. They don’t cuff him when he’s about to take a shower anyway.

Brook: The only response he gets from the tired and blood-coated teenager is a deflated sigh, as he undoes the buckle on his shoulder and pulls out the mammoth revolver on his chest, offering it to the marshal.

GM: Seeing Mary depart, Harvey does likewise. Hudson marks the grim similarity of their steps. It’s a stride he’s seen and worn many a time. It’s the look of someone locked on a course they do not want, but cannot avoid nor abandon.

The sun may be rising over Witiko Falls, but the night’s shadow hangs heavy.

Hazel: Attila Awakens


? October 1998?

GM: The TV buzzes with flickering snow-like static. Secured to the upper corner of her private hospital room, the TV stares down at Hazel with its incoherent blur and mechanical hiss. Other medical apparatus beep and chirp like a broken electronic symphony. The walls and floor are an antiseptic white, broken only by the golden sunlight that filters through a curtained window.

Hazel: Attila awakens.

Patterns. Patterns everywhere. In the thread of the sheets, the wiring of the lights, even the static blaring down from the television set.

Patterns. Patterns everywhere.

The underlying laws and logic to the cosmos, laid bare at least. Hazel cannot articulate them–not so soon, not when she’s never been the best at putting thoughts into words–but she knows them. They wind through reality like the threads of a grand tapestry. Threads that she might gather up in her fingers, spin, snip, re-weave into new designs and patterns. Her tapestry. Her reality. Reality is soft clay, malleable in her hands, and she has just learned how to sculpt. She’s had the blindfold removed. For the first time in her life, the universe makes sense. Perfect and complete sense.

Attila has Awakened.

She feels the scream–of elation, triumph, anticipation, and a maelstrom of so many other emotions, welling in her chest like a hurricane about to make landfall. It’s all she can do to keep her mouth closed. She clenches her fists and smacks her bedding, rocking back and forth, giddy with… no. ‘Giddy’ is far too limiting a phrase. This is exaltation, soul-deep and unlimited, infinite, all-encompassing. She is Awake! It all makes sense!_

She calms after a moment, the grin disappearing from her features. A long-honed investigator’s eye apprises her surroundings. So. Her own private room. Mom likely paying for things, as expected. She’s not handcuffed to the bed. Nothing’s been proven. Nothing…

Oh god. Dread sinks her stomach like a cannonball chucked into a bathtub.I killed them. The Sweeneys. I’m a murderer. No. No. No. That’s impossible, they never did anything to me, they…

The severed limbs flash across her newly-aware mind. The limbs. In her house. Hazel clenches her blankets and begins rubbing her hands against them, back and forth, back and forth. Concentrating on the sensation. They’re relatively soft, for a hospital bed’s. Nice to know she’s… the thought disappears as her mind plumbs for answers. There might not be much time, and there’s so much at stake. She needs to act, and fast.

GM: Her manic, fractured psyche reaches out for the spiral staircase, but she finds the handrails are gone. Only static remains. The TV buzzes, then abruptly changes its own channel. An image appears on the screen which rests on the squat side-table shoved in the other corner. Was it ever hovering above her in the other corner? Is space an illusion? A mutable phenomenon full of caprice and bereft of moorings–like her mind?

Another table sits beside the TV’s stand–although now Hazel cannot help but question what ‘beside’ means. Does it mean anything at all? Did it ever mean anything at all? Does anything anymore? But no, there is a glass table, a circle–in which she sees other circles, creating the vesicle piscis repeat again and again, around and around, to create the Flower of Life, just like how her family’s car swerved and spun, around and around, again and again. Now the circles are an illusion. Or are they? Is the table an illusion? She doesn’t know. Her eyes close, perhaps reflexively to shut out the madness.

But the madness is within. The static. She smells wine. Red. Red like the blood of Elouise Sweeney as it spurted on her husband’s face. It’s Barbaresco. She opens her eyes to see the lipstick imprint on the all but drained glass. The TV warbles into ‘focus’.

TV.png

A face emerges on it. Its eyes vacant save for an insatiable thirst and frenzied terror. The feminine thing howls and shrieks with an inhuman intensity that causes the video feed to crackle and distort. Points. Lines. Angles. That’s all it is. That’s all everything is.

But Hazel’s psyche sees the lines, points, and angles of the creature’s mouth. Teeth. Fangs. The shot pans out, revealing the seemingly possessed monster in a kevlar and chain-reinforced straightjacket shackled to a barren room. White-walled room. The mad woman-thing thrashes, but in vain. Two Spooks emerge in the far corners of the shot. Their plastic features are obscured by their identical black hats, black glasses, and suits.

By virtue of some off–screen cue, the pair retracts a room divider, revealing the other side of the room–and most prominently a sunrise–capturing window. As the solar illumination fills the room, the fettered woman begins to smolder. Her skin blackens like burnt paper in a bonfire. As the paranormal immolation hideously consumes the frenzying monster, the audio feed of her screams is muted and another feed comes on playing the national anthem. A male voice-over joins it:

REALITY DEVIANTS ARE EVERYWHERE! YOUR GOVERNMENT NEEDS YOU! JOIN THE CONSENSUS!”

Hazel: Hazel can’t say she’s sorry to see the vampire go up in flames. Far from the tragically misunderstood antiheroes of certain novels, all of her research–and the one she’s actually seen with her own eyes–indicate they are nothing but monstrous parasites upon humanity.

But she’s not sure she trusts the men–the Spooks–who delivered the thing to its destruction (‘death’ seems inaccurate) either. She’s seen their methods up close and personal too. She’ll hold off on any joining until she’s done a lot more research. Like what happened to her predecessor.

GM: The TV shot zooms in as the government agents walk in eerie symmetry towards the now-empty straightjacket and chains. As the anthem ends, the male voiceover continues:

“WE CAN SET YOU FREE! JOIN TODAY! THERE IS SAFETY IN CONSENSUS!”

Even deranged as Hazel is, she picks up the not so subtle undertones of what might happen to those who don’t ‘join the consensus’.

Hazel: A lot more research.

GM: The video is swallowed by static. One eye-blink later, the TV stares down at her again from the top of the other corner. There is no TV on a squat table. There never was. Distance is lie. So is sanity. A nurse walks into the illusion that her mind once recognized as a ‘room’.

Hazel: Hazel sits up and regards the woman. “Hello. How long a duration have I been insensate for?”

GM: The woman checks her ticking watch. Unlike her scrubs which bear Mount Pelion’s seal of Eris’ golden apple of Discord, her leather watch-band has the tooled shape of Proteus, the ever-changing one. “It’s Friday, October 10th, 1998… at 6:06 pm.” The nurse looks up and offers a smile that doesn’t yet reach her eyes.

The evening light casts sharp shadows across her face, but her features are still clear enough for Hazel to identify the nurse. It’s Mackenzie Snakewater, formerly Mackenzie Pinkston–her old queen-bee social tormentor in middle school. “Hello, Hazel,” her old school-mate says with a half-swallowed smirk. She looks over Hazel’s chart and then inspects the sling over Hazel’s arm and the splint on her thigh.

Mackenzie.png

Hazel: Well, look who now wipes people’s asses for a living.

“Hello, Mackenzie. Please see to it that my parents are informed I am conscious and in such a state as to receive visitors.” Attila is prepared to be civil if her ire is not tempted.

GM: “That will be up to the doctors to decide,” the dark-haired nurse says.

Hazel: “Such is not within your power. I see. Please inform my assigned doctor that I am conscious and in such a state as to discuss whether I am able to receive visitors.”

GM: “Speaking of doctors’ orders,” Mackenzie adds, pulling out a pill bottle with Hazel’s name printed on it, “You’re to take these. For the pain.” She lays out the nine pills in a shape that eerily resembles the nine fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

Nurse Pinkston then leaves.

Hazel: “Nurse Pinkston!” Hazel’s voice sharply rings through the hospital room.

GM: Already out the door, Mackenzie’s head pops back in. “Yes, Hazel?”

Hazel: “What are you going to do when you have left my room, Nurse Pink–Snakewater.” Hazel’s tone is not one of someone asking a question. It is a reminder, sharp and pointed as a hospital scalpel.

GM: “Follow my orders,” she says with a winsome smile. “As you should yours,” she says with a motioning gesture to the pills. “Best take a big drink first.”

Hazel: Attila smiles back. “Repeat them for me, Nurse Snakewater, so I am certain they will be followed.” They are her orders.

GM: Likely to Hazel’s infuriation, Mackenzie laughs. Her voice is still pearly. “You know, Hazel, people change all the time. They really do. You should give it a try sometime. Maybe start by being less of a bitch. But if you want to cause a scene, I’ll just call some orderlies to sedate you.” She flashes Hazel another class-winning smile, then closes the door. It locks.

Hazel: Hazel’s clear voice smugly sounds through the door. “Sedatives can take mere hours to wear off, Mackenzie. Evidence of infidelity with men twice one’s age, however, can permanently destroy a marriage.”

GM: Her words refer Hazel’s pre-employment snooping on her old rivals. Mackenzie’s skeletons were perhaps the most surprising. Not only does Hazel know that Mackenzie married Hiram Snakewater, a half-blooded Kainai from the reservation–which was unexpected given Mackenzie’s racist predictions in grade school–but Hazel also followed Mackenzie on several late afternoon trysts to another man’s house. Each time, she arrived gussied up, and each time she left fatigued and disheveled, but clearly very, very satisfied. That the old queen bee would be so treacherous does not shock Hazel. Instead, it’s the identity of the ‘other man’ that still perplexes the bedridden librarian. Mackenzie Snakewater, her old classmate, is having an affair with her uncle, Leopold Schoening.

But despite that knowledge and her threat, the door remains locked. Perhaps Leo’s Lustprinzip is just that good.

Hazel: So be it. Attila does not threaten–only promise. Mr. Snakewater will be receiving some very interesting photos.

GM: Locked inside with prescribed pills she knows nothing about, the hospital room takes on the menacing overtures of an asylum. One where she as the patient has no power. Yet, as Leo often reminds her, scientia potentia est. Knowledge is power. And as she inspects the nine pills and their bottle, she gains power.

Hazel: Besides which, the door could well be within her power to deal with. It wouldn’t be the first lock she’s picked. Some store merchandise, after all, is locked inside those pesky cases.

GM: Beside the large glass of water, Hazel finds the pill bottle placed right where the tenth sephirot or fruit should be. The pill bottle’s overall appearance resembles that of all prescription bottles, save for the print that describes the medicine itself. Rather than a list of its name, dosage, and route, there is a passage from Milton’s Paradise Lost:

In vain, though by their powerful Art they bind
Volatile Hermes, and call up unbound
In various shapes old Proteus from the Sea,
Drain’d through a Limbec to his native form.


Hazel knows that Milton’s passage signifies the association of Proteus with the Hermetic art of alchemy, and of those alchemists who sought the philosopher’s stone. More specifically, she recalls writings of the German mystical alchemist Heinrich Khunrath, who said that the shape–changing sea–god was, because of his relationship to the sea, both a symbol of the unconscious as well as the perfection of the Art. Alluding to the scintilla, the spark from ‘the light of nature’ which may signify the awakening as well as the symbol of the anima mundi, which may signify the tenth fruit which unifies them all, Khunrath in Gnostic vein stated of the Protean element Mercury: our Catholick Mercury, by virtue of his universal fiery spark of the light of nature, is beyond doubt Proteus, the sea god of the ancient pagan sages, who hath the key to the sea and… power over all things.

In more modern times, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung defined the mythological figure of Proteus as the personification of the sleeping unconsciousness, who is vast and pulled by tides both deep and strong, but is mutable nonetheless. Surrounding the pill bottle, which Hazel notes is now empty, are the nine pills. Each one has a single letter on it. For one who had not seen what her inner mind had seen, it would be almost impossible to know where to begin the ‘reading’. But the reference to the Hermitic arts of alchemy provide the clue: one must begin with the basest of matter. Matter. As Above, so Below. Her mind summons up the tree and the base fruit of Matter, then follows the connections, reading each engraved pill-letter. V.I.T.R.I.O.L.V.M.

Even now, the message would be undecipherable to most, but Hazel has the key of knowledge, its edges honed through years of occult study. And so, she recognizes the meaning of the nine letters: Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem Veram Medicinam. And its translation into her tongue: Visit the interior of the Earth; by rectification thou shalt find the hidden stone. Moreover, she recalls the acronym has another hidden meaning, its letters signifying a green lion. Just like the one in Mrs. Griswold’s diary. Just as the green lion of vitriol dissolves all metals save the noble gold, the expression amongst Freemasony, Rosicrucianism, and Heremetism is a motto commonly found in the physically symbolic “Chamber of Reflection,” wherein the awakening initiate contemplates and reflects on the nature of death or dissolution of impurities in order to achieve internal, spiritual purification.

Hazel: Interesting. Hazel sets the pills down–and as she does, she notices slashes on the bottle’s bottom. Two of them, in the form of the cross. Holding the orange plastic up to the light, the cross looks rose-colored.

So. Another present from Leo.

That alleviates some of her concern. There’s someone out there trying to help her. It even fits with how Mackenzie is her nurse: the former queen bee’s connection to Leo likely made it all the easier for him to discretely get the pills in.

But how does he know about the tree and its nine fruits? How does he know she can now taste them? Is he… like she now is? Awake?

Those aren’t questions she can answer now, but she’ll trust him–if you can’t trust family, who can you trust–and take the pills. The sole remaining question she can answer is whether she should do that now or later. It’s possible she’s been involuntarily committed, for Mackenzie to actually lock her in. If that’s the case, the 24 hours she can be detained without a preliminary court hearing aren’t up yet. But there is a sure way to find out whether she’s being detained. She sets down the pills and waits for a moment, looking about the room.

She could try to escape. She could pick the lock, maybe exit through the window. If she’s not been taken into emergency custody, it’s her legal right to refuse medical treatment and leave the hospital at any time, even if it’s against her doctor’s advice. But even if she isn’t being detained, it’ll look suspicious as hell right now. The police–her dad among them–are most likely puzzling over the collection of dismembered body parts they found in her house.

The ones she was responsible for.

That she now remembers.

She’s a murderer.

She brushes away the dampness in her eyes. Why? Dear god, why?! What did the Sweeneys ever do to her? How could she–why did she–but she did. There is blood on her hands. She doesn’t even know how it got there. I… I didn’t want to. I didn’t mean to. Please, I… I didn’t! she pleads, as if beset by the dead couple’s accusing faces.

But she said it herself, to her dad in the car. Intentions count for little. Actions are what matter. She was always a determinist. A utilitarianist. She buries her face in her hands, stifling a sob. I… I have to make up for this! I have to atone! Right my wrong, balance the figurative scales of justice–

But they’re dead. She can’t bring them back. What can possibly atone for this, for the blood of two lives on her hands? Blood that she didn’t even remember shedding?

Marilyn. There’s Marilyn, their daughter. Their ghost. I… I must help her pass on. That’s what they would have wanted. I’m the only one who knows Marilyn’s story, I’m the only one who can do it! I can’t go to prison, I can’t–

Her face flushes with shame. She’s not facing reality. First, is that what Albert and Elouise would even want? Their killer to walk free, to try assisting their daughter’s soul in finding rest? She doesn’t know. She’s never been much good at reading people. They’d probably want Marilyn to know peace, but at her hands? Their murderer’s? Hazel scrambles for answers. What if they left behind shades of their own? She could seek them out, submit herself to whatever grim justice the restless dead might impose…

It’s poetic, certainly. Grand and noble. Let her victims decide her fate, after she helps their daughter pass on. But it ignores a very real and very pressing issue: she doesn’t know why she did it. She hardly remembers doing it. And until she does–_if_ she ever does–she is a danger to others. What’s to stop her from cutting up some other poor innocent couple and squatting in their house? And sending postcards. Postcards. Good god, the lengths to which she went to deceive herself…

The hard and brutal truth is, she can’t be allowed to walk free. She can’t risk killing again. Not so she can ease her own poor conscience. Maybe institutionalization really is the best fate for her, if one is to consider the greatest good for the greatest possible number.

A mental institution. It’s what she’s always feared, since she first started researching what her ASD meant. Since she found out about all the other people with autism who had it so much worse than she did. She thought she’d escaped their fate. But maybe not.

It’s too much to bear.

She downs the pills, tosses back a tall drink of water, and blissfully falls into oblivion.

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Story One, Chapter Twelve

Brook: Skin Deep


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Thursday evening, 9 October 1998

GM: Four hours before the Devil’s Hour, clouds cover the night sky like a black body bag. Brook turns onto Shades of Death Trail.

For all the macabre oddity of the road’s name, the route is a familiar one to the junior ranger. Beyond its primary function of connecting the Kainai reservation to the Kaniksu Forest–and Akipunni Station therein–Brook is aware of the dark history that inspired the road’s name. Unlike the highwayman banditry and lynching that inspired the similarly named roads in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the Shades of Death Trail was originally made by the Kaniksu’s black-robed Jesuit monks seeking congress with if not conversion of the Blood Tribe of Witiko Falls. For deeds which remain disputed amongst local historians, the Kainai’s iikunuhkahtsi flayed the monks and hung their robes and skins from trail’s surrounding pine trees as a warning.

Despite such a morbid inception, the White Plague or the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the trail expanded to its current state as an asphalt paved highway that carves through Kaniksu’s heart. Tonight, no human hides hang from the surrounding pines, cedar, and ponderosas to darken the route, but the drive is still nearly pitch black, save for the Brook’s yellow headlights. It’s quiet too, as the thunderclouds loom menacingly but silently–for now. The forest’s fauna also seem subdued, perhaps sensing the coming storm.

Despite such atavistic omens, Brook nearly misses the danger riding right behind him. It’s as if the storm decides to break right behind him, with a thunderclap formed by a deafening roar of a motorcycle and its lightning-hot headlight. Its rider is dressed in black gloves, dark jeans, and a denim jacket whose patches the cadet cannot make out. The dark-haired man sports a thick beard and slicked back hair that seems to blend into the night. But it’s his eyes that Brook notices above all. Perhaps it is merely the reflection of Brook’s taillights upon the man’s glasses, but the biker’s eyes seem to glow like blinding furnaces. The flame-eyed man seems to come out of nowhere, and by the time Brook spots him, he’s racing down on Brook with frightening speed, as if he plans to drive straight through Brook and his larger vehicle.

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Brook’s ranger-honed instincts take over in the half-second before they would crash, though, and he hits wheel, swerving his old truck just in time. Ardenaline spikes Brook’s heart as the biker disappears into the night. Disappears in a mere blink, just like he appeared.

As Brook blinks, he can still see the afterimages of biker’s eyes burning in his vision. Despite this disturbing distraction, Brook easily spots a horde of Harleys and other chopped–up hogs burning down the road. What these riders lack in speed and stealth, they make up in their swarm like numbers.

The Moonbrood are coming.

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Brook: Brook feels the same way on the trail as he does on half the roads in Witiko Falls–on edge. Driving with narcolepsy, even when he knows he can’t sleep, is a part of his life when all his focus is on the road. It pays off today. It’s not too good of a night for a drive, but a thunderstorm on Red Aspen is always amazing, glass on every side, Brook sees every crack of beautiful lightning. If he makes it home. Hope for beauty is replaced with hope for survival with the crack of what at first registers as lightning behind him. It’s all the teen can do to move, the only thoughts going through his head mimicked in his throat as he lets out a primal scream of effort, feeling like he was going to rip the wheel off his truck as he narrow avoids disaster, turning back into his lane and breaking to a stop.

Shaken and panting, his heart in his throat, Brook slams is fist into the seat beside him and lets out another hopped up yell, not a sign of the rider anywhere. He spots them all immediately after. Mooners. Hazards on, high beams off, Brook slides his gun under the seat and stands out in front of his truck, waving his hands above his head to flag one of them down. They have to have seen something! Maybe it’s even one of them! Whatever gives him solace away from the thought that ‘the line’ came at him. Those eyes burn in his brain.

GM: It does not take long until the Moonbrood descend.

The truck’s flickering hazard lights create a red strobe that lights up the wild bikers like splashes of neon blood. The roar of their collective engines shakes the ground, broken bits of gravel and pebbles bouncing and scattering across the weathered road. At least three dozen strong, the Mooners are a chaotic mob whose individual features blur in the rushing blackness. Black leather, denim and boots. Spiraling tattoos against rippling muscles and wild hirsute faces. Patches featuring shape-changing moons.

The first riders don’t even slow down for the ranger cadet. The next portion of the pack seems to only slow down enough to holler and howl at the night. Brook sees a woman, naked save for blacklight body-paint, riding a grizzled biker that races past him so close he can swears he can hear their grunts and libidinous thrusts. He smells the thick exhaust of the hogs, the odor of weed and harder drugs pollute the forest air. Many have terrifying helmets, complete with spikes or bestial horns. Brook thinks he spots one wearing the giant skull of a pig. Men who have become monsters in the night. Disgusting… and yet alluring.

Brook’s attention reflexively shifts though when a beer bottle hurtles from the horde and crashes into the back of his truck, shattering messily. By the time he turns back around, he notices that the stragglers of the pack are slowing down. Yet, as the Moonchildren approach atop their rumbling chrome and leather hogs, Brook is forced to reconsider the wisdom of hailing down a gang of outlaw bikers.

A half dozen circle around him in slow spirals. The ring of headlights paints them in flickering false halos, coronas of halogen and smoke. Brook takes in each of their faces, a carousel tableau of drugs, machismo, violence, and sins best left unsaid.

The ‘first’ is thin–faced, with unkempt white–grey hair that resembles the mangled woolly remains of a wolf–ravaged sheep scattered across his face. Dressed in black leather from cap to boots, his head almost appears disembodied, bobbing and twitching in the darkness a few feet above his harley. His gray-green stare at Brook with a deadness that most roadkill lack.

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The second’s gaze is perhaps even less welcoming. Black shades are slung high across the man’s razored pate, but his large grizzled mutton-chops hang from his chin and face, their two ends pinched by rows of miniature skull beads that match the iron–work nose and earrings. Despite the autumnal chill, he wears a sleeveless leather biker’s jacket and chaps and cause his crotch and buttocks to bulge nakedly. Tattoos are scrawled across both and snake up his chest and around the scars where his nipples should be. While his left hand rests lazily upon a thrumming handlebar, the right clutches a chain that is clipped to the belt of the third rider.

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Also razor–shorn, the middle-aged man has only a small scruff of reddish facial hair around his lip and chin. Warts mark both of his checks. Similarly adorned in a sleeveless black leather jacket with various patches, including a black moon on its back, the man wears tight-fitting jeans and large hobnailed boots. His bare arms and chest are littered with sloppy tattoos, including designs reminiscent of Celtic or Viking runes, a giant ‘1%’, and a praying nun receiving cunnilingus from a devil. Of all the bikers, his gaze seems the least sure, his green-marbled eyes flickering back and forth to his peers.

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Chief amongst those peers is a grizzled giant. Tall and thick-bodied, the man’s skull looks like it could crack a bowling ball. His long gray beard is unadorned save for ashes from his smoldering joint. A red bandana covers his wrinkled scalp, but his muscled stout torso is adorned by a denim jacket, covered with patches and pins, from sword–swallowing skulls, American flags, a spread–legged cat encircled by the words HAPPINESS IS A WARM PUSSY, and a giant blue moon. Ink peaks from his fingerless biker gloves, long-johns, tooled moose–skin chaps, and heavy boots. He regards Brook with brow–roofed eyes that even in the dark reveal him as a native son of Witiko Falls, as his dilated left pupil all but swallows his iris. Both eyes appraise Brook, as if searching his face for past recollections or future possibilities.

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Clutching the waist of the long–bearded man is what Brook can only assume is his ‘old lady’. She wears a cheap and flagrantly fake fur coat with a snow leopard print and leather pants so tight they remind the ranger cadet of the Swiner’s sausage casings. He hard–worn skin and sagging breasts are marked with past abscesses, spray tan, and tract marks. A sole tattoo marks her sunken stomach: Property of the Mooncildren. A rolled red bandanna pulls back her bleach–blonde, shoulder–length hair. Her heavily painted brows, lashes, and lips regard the young teenager with a lazy, lascivious look, although her glazed over eyes often

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The last of the slowly circling bikers is shorter and scrawnier than his peers, but no less disturbing. He rides and steers just with his straddled, denim–clad legs. His arms he crosses over his chest. His black T-shirt and sleeveless leather jacket expose his forearms and the gnarled–thick hair that resembles burnt shag carpet. He too wears fingerless leather gloves, those his are studded by spikes. His horseshoe mustache is primarily white, as is the curly hair that bursts from his shirt. He wears an unsnapped bucket helmet and glass glasses that obscure his eyes and scalp. His lips and neck twitch constantly, as if he is shooing phantasmagoric insects.

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As Brook regards the slow spiral of outlaw bikers, old instincts buried in bones take over. He knows nothing of the Mooner’s patches and particular identities, but he does know predators. He knows packs. The blue–moon giant is their alpha–and at present the least aggressive of the pack.

For now.

Brook: It’s a bad idea on every front, but after such an encounter he needs to know what they’ve seen going the opposite way. Too much is weighing on his mind for him not to want to wave these people down. Besides, if he’s honest with himself, he’s often watched them all and felt envious, both of the machines they ride and air of anarchy and rage they can openly display. Despite being on what the gang may see as opposite sides of the law, Brook has never looked on them with any kind of scorn. Drug dealing aside.

The bottle against his truck is mighty fucking unwelcome though, a grit of his teeth to restrain himself from any quick movements as he keeps waving SOMEONE down, and gets his wish. Pack is the best word for what descends on him, and like every pack before this this one, he reacts as is according. Deflecting his threat, he keeps his hands up properly, looking up and making eye contact with who can only be the alpha. Long in the tooth, the female with him, the calm gravitas of a leader. His giant frame does nothing to dissuade this thought process. Brook follows this man’s eyes, slowly turning and waiting for them to stop as he tries only once to yell over the din of their hell-bikes.

“Did you see a biker going the opposite way of you? Slicked black hair and… and flaming eyes?” If they hear it, it sounds silly, but he needs to get straight to the point.

GM: Brook doesn’t know whether any of the bikers actually hear, much less understand his question. Even without the sluggish roar of the five hogs, his inquiry isn’t the most… rational. Then again, neither is his audience.

The bearded alpha makes a motion to his pack, and one by one, they kill their engines.

The furry–armed, shade–wearing one mutters something. Brook almost swears he hears the man say, “Dribbles,” like the fast–food fried chicken chunks from O’Tolley’s.

The bearded alpha regards his scrawny-armed companion as he if just uttered something profound. He turns back his gaze on Brook, and narrows his eyes as he takes a puff from his joint.

“What’a we ‘ave ’ere? A lil’ lost pup?,” his old lady says with a psychedelic–slurred tone. With an eel–like motion, she plucks the joint from her man’s lips and takes a hit of her own, all but forgetting her question and its object.

“Pup? More like a little pussy,” sneers the waist–chained biker.

His ‘partner’ looks over Brook’s tall muscular body. His nostrils flare, as if smelling the adolescent’s musk. His fat, flaccid member begins to swell.

The alpha doesn’t so much interrupt the predatory words as he talks over them. “Maybe you saw the Devil, son. These here are his roads.”

His old lady leans on him, and waves the joint as if it is a Black Sabbat wand and she a witch.
“You’s wann’a ride, sweetie?”

“Sweet cheeks,” the chained biker says, flashing an eye to the expression and engorged member of his partner.

The helmet-wearing man continues to twitch and mumble.

The first man remains silent. His dead gaze never once leaving Brook’s face.

Brook: Brook holds to his mind-set that this a pack of predators, and as such, he susses out the group. Three of them are concerning to him, the first thin faced man. Heading a pack instead of an alpha may mean he’s the beta, and a quiet predator is the kind the young ranger is the most wary of. Of course then the alpha. But the third surprisingly isn’t the one lusting after his underage ass, it’s the female. One word in her alpha’s ear and moods can change real quick.

His eyes stay on the alpha, even an eye twitch could be an attack signal, but he actually perks a bit when the giant talks about this being the Devil’s road, talking directly to the long bearded man. “Does the Devil have burning eyes and ride a bike loud as hell?”

GM: Some of the bikers laugh, but enough of them also look at their pack leader before responding.

“Why don’tcha cum n’ find out fer y’self, sweetie,” the tract–marked floozy says, offering the joint. “Or are’ya ‘fraid of a lil’ pow’r ’tween yer legs?” she adds with a husky lick of her lips.

“Sweet-cheeks…” the skull-beaded man says with his equally libido-thrumming gaze.

His partner laughs, cracking his neck in nervous excitement. “Dribbles,” the little man says.

The silent one leans in, close enough to smell Brook’s licorice–black hair.

Brook: Ironic, now it’s on the Indian to ‘smoke the peace pipe’ or insult the entire gang. Just like he thought earlier, she’s a danger to him. Whoever this silent one is, and whatever he’s doing, Brook stands tall and doesn’t flinch away from him, letting him do what he wants. “Sorry. I’m not a good enough driver to get home after a smoke, but I’ll take you up on that next time. I owe you all a drink for stopping, anyway. Thank you, miss.”

He hopes that’s enough to placate her before he looks back to her alpha. “I thought it was one of the Moonbrood. He came up on me, fast, just a minute ago, like he wanted to cut right through me. I got out of the way, but he vanished. Did you pass him?”

GM: Ash falls from the still–extended joint like snow, prompting Brook to remember his last run-in with the Moonbrood…

Winter 1994

GM: It’s been an ugly year for the twelve–year–old Brook. Being a half-native six-grader at Lame Bull Middle School hasn’t been easy, as he’s had numerous scraps with not only the Kainai kids who treat him as white trash but now the former off-res graduates from Eugene Baker Elementary who magnanimously treat him as just another ‘timber nigger’.

Chief amongst the latter group has been Brook’s classmate, Nelson Judd. This past week alone has seen three playground scuffles between the pair. Today’s fight, however, happened in the hallway, after Nelson and some of his friends locked Danny Littlebeaver in a school locker. The subsequent earned Nelson a black eye and Brook his first out of school suspension.

It’s been an ugly year. And the winter is just as ugly.

A fortnight after the solstice, night falls quickly on Witiko Falls and the wilderness that surrounds it. With the sun already sunk beneath the western rim of the Bitterroot Mountains, twilight is a ghostly grey that rises to purpling black. The moon shines bright, making the March snow glow. The forecast blizzard has not yet arrived, but the temperature is sinking faster than the sun. Brook can hear pine trees crack as the cold leaps fiercely upon the Kaniksu forest like one of its psychotic predators.

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Most folk would consider Mary Madcatcher’s parenting equally psychotic. Upon hearing of her adopted son’s latest fight and suspension, Red Aspen’s matriarch simply pointed outside and said a single word. “Hemlock.” She didn’t need to say anything else.

Nearly an hour later, Brook is still searching for a suitable switch of the relatively rare wood. This isn’t the first time he’s been sent into the forest to search for a switch, as Mary Madcatcher is not one to spare the rod nor spoil her child. In the coming years, Brook may appreciate the educative as well as punitive role of these tasks. Tonight, though, Brook is more keenly aware of three facts:

It’s freezing. Hemlock is damned hard to find. And Nelson Judd deserves more than a black eye.

Brook: It’s freezing, but Brook is equipped, and unfortunately for the scavengers of the young cub’s birthright territory, he’s very much acclimated. It’s not immediately apparent it’s a twelve year old in the bundle of fur and wind breaking nylon, trudging through the snow, steam and panting threats and insults leaking out a small opening in the hood. It’s a big pack he’s carrying, and a gun he wish he didn’t have to lug around, but the fear keeps him moving and glad for the safety both weights bring him. Well, relative safety.

In the dark, it’s difficult to find anything, and though he has a flashlight it’s suicide to make his presence too well known. These woods won’t welcome even a child. They won’t even give him what he needs to leave. But Brook is anything but a quitter, pushing forward into the woods as he keeps his eyes and ears out, stopping at each tree. He has to come back with hemlock. Has to.

GM: As he presses forward, further into the woods, the young Brook comes across a set of moon-lit tracks. Paw prints, surrounded by snow fleas. Front paws larger than rear ones. Claws visible in the soft snow. Oval shaped rather than oblong or round. Coyote. Just last night, there had been reports of a rapid coyote running wild at the Blue Mooncalf Ranch, trying to suicidally attack the Britter’s lobotomized dairy cows.

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Brook: It’s a moment of pause for the young ranger, looking over the print and sneering. Snow fleas, his least favorite part about the spring. But it’s more than clear what he needs to do, looking to where they’ve gone and checking his weapon as he begins stalking the coyote. Mary will be more than pleased with him if he brings her both the switch and one less headache. It goes from trudging and complaining to a silent young man following the tracks of his next target.

GM: The full moon serves as Brook’s nocturnal flashlight as night sinks into the sky. Unlike the hemlock, the coyote proves easily found. Less than a half-mile later, Brook hears the thing growling and yelping. Its predatory sounds mingle with the crunch of snow, the creak of cold branches, and most incongruently or at least disturbingly, the dull groans of a man.

Brook’s eyes drink in the moonlight, his own predatory instincts allowing him to visually tear apart the scene down to its marrow. The man is a Mooner. He’s nearly frozen to death, supine in the snow, his skin an eerie blue and his eyes circling like buzzards in his skull. One of his legs has clearly been shattered and twisted at a sickening angle. Somehow the man is alive. And more bizarrely, he seems to be enjoying his death.

The coyote is gnawing on the man’s pinky. It grows ravenously, shaking its head back and forth, shredding the man’s finger off his hand. It begins lapping up the blood which flows from torn appendage. The man moans. In pleasure.

Brook: Brook takes it all in, a mix of emotions going through his head before he puts it all down and narrows it down to one. Duty. Whether this man is enjoying himself or not, it’s the young man’s job to save him. Using the element of surprise, he slowly raises his weapon and doesn’t dare breathe as he squeezes the trigger. The shot runs out through the whole forest as one predator strikes out at another.

GM: The slug slams into the coyote’s skull. The predator instantly goes down like a puppet with cut strings. No yelp of pain. Just a hunger cut off mid-growl. Whether the preteen grunts or cries out from the kickback of the gun is another matter, and a secret that neither the insensate coyote or insane man will ever share. The gunshot does seem to snap the dying biker back to reality or at least near its zip code. He begins to scream.

Brook: Brook’s shoulder throbs at the kickback of the weapon, teeth grit in pain for a moment before he realizes it’s the only time he’s needs to use the weapon for the moment. It’s good the poor animal hasn’t a clue how it died, but he’s got more pressing matters. This biker is going to die without his help.

Dropping his backpack, he grabs out his kits, putting the safety on the gun as he sets it down, spent shell in the chamber still. With his supplies, he rushes to the biker’s aid. “It’s okay! It’s okay, I’m Brook, I’m here to help you get out of here! Give me your hand!” Brook already has the first aid kit in his hands, grabbing for the biker’s wrist.

GM: It’s hard to tell if the biker’s screams become slurred curses or remain thoughtless, pain–born noise. Despite his callow age, Brook has been raised for moments like these. Years of training–didactic, observational, and experiential–kick in for the ranger-raised preteen. The Mooner’s eyes continue to swirl, but his screams subside. By the time Brook finally staunches the bleeding wound, the biker’s blue lips mumble. The mumble turns into a strange song:

“An ye gae soon to Damburrow toon, Yer breech–cuff cinch up ladder or lasse. For theyre sure to comme ’roon, Up frae under the groom, ’Aslythin like snaykes thrw the grasse…”

That’s when the coyote stands up.

Brook spots it, its head still smashed in by the well-aimed shotgun slug. One moment, the corpse is still and un-breathing, fur, bone, and blood splattered around its head as a crown on the moonlit snow. And then, inexplicably, terribly, it rises. Groggily as if waking from a deep sleep. The slug remains buried in its brain. Blood drips from the massive gunshot. Blood drips from its teeth.

The corpse-coyote does not breathe. But it sniffs the air. And smells prey. Its howl tears through the cold-dead night. Its feral pack answers in kind.

Brook: This is Brook’s purpose. Many people think it’s insane for Mary Madcatcher to send her boy out into these forests alone, like he’s doomed to die the moment his mother isn’t with him. But they don’t understand. Mary trusts him to become strong, to become an alpha. Moments like these are why. Listening to the biker start to deliriously go on as he works, it’s the sound of the coyote standing that drains the sound out of everything else in the forest.

He doesn’t look at first, reaching and grabbing his weapon as he hears the coyote howl with what should have been a head separated off its shoulders. But silence gives way to a cacophony of death. Coyotes are flippant when it comes to packs, either very small ones or ones that are easily broken up, until there’s larger prey to hunt.

That prey isn’t Brook. He refuses. These are his woods, he’s the one being groomed for alpha status, he will survive. He is the son of Mary Madcatcher, the boy born of the Green Lady, he is a predator too! Turning with a snarl, he pumps the gun, sending the spent shell spinning into the snow, before he turns the sights on the coyote. That’s when the horror hits him.

There’s nothing left of one side of its head, caved in and thrown into the snow by a speeding slug, and here it stands. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t breathe but it howls, it has no mind but it smells, it’s dead but has rejected Old Lady’s decision and risen back again. It’s not possible. Fear swells in the boy’s chest as his heart races, but other emotions come with it, eyes flicking to the Mooner in concern, teeth gritting in anger, muscle tensing in preparation. Brook pulls the gun up, pointing at the coyote, and squeezes the trigger once more. It must stop moving, and then Brook must run.

GM: The thing lunges at Brook with wide-open jaws, its bloody fangs seeking to tear out his throat with a psychotic rage. As the scared but defiant preteen raises his shotgun, the corpse coyote nearly swallows the gun’s barrel just as Brook squeezes the trigger. The beast’s lunge and shotgun blast knock the boy to the ground. Snow flies up around him and the cold, hard ground crunches on his already sore shoulder.

The thing however is flung backwards, away from Brook and the gibbering, insensate biker. The boy hears bone and pulpy brain matter splatter the snow-carpeted leaves of a nearby pine. The violent impact and discharge cause the snow to crash like an arboreal avalanche, buying the corpse coyote in a ghost–white grave.

In the distance–but shorter distance now–Brook hears the coyote pack. Moonlight cuts through the forest like cold knives. Brook’s breath steams. The biker groans. The mound lays still.

Brook: It’s a moment in slow motion. Brook can almost feel his pupils dilate, ready to show him a life flashing before his eyes, swears he could feel tooth on steel. Before the pain strikes, a shooting pain through his shoulder as time hits play again and sends him sprawling. Blood everywhere, what can only be brain, and these FUCKING snow fleas.

But when the preteen jerks up to see if he’s yet dead, it’s a moment he knows he can’t waste, the pile of snow unmoving. Like he’s caught in a trap, the young man scrambles up with his shotgun and runs to the biker, hefting him onto his back to keep him warm and get him the fuck out of here.

It’s starting to hurt. Ache in his shoulder from his own weapon, a slight burn in his lungs from effort in the cold air, and the dull thrum of a day outside in his thighs and calves. He ignores it for now, knowing how much worse it will get as he hoists the backer over his beck, grabbing both the stock and the barrel and using it as a bench for him to sit on, before he hears it.

They’re coming for him.

Brook sprints off down the path he’d taken, letting his world fade out as he focuses on survival and duty, tunnel vision as his legs slam into the snow, his breath heavier and heavier steam. Red Aspen can’t be far. Brook doesn’t pray, but he quietly pants out his pleas to the wood and snow around him.

“Please. Please let me get him out. Please.”

GM: Ko’komiki’somm answers.

The full moon lights up his hard-packed trail he’s backtracking on, back to Red Aspen, back to his mother, back to home, and away, away. The bright moon paints the trees and rocks in stark relief, their black blurs rushing past him. It’s almost as if he can feel the moon seep into his veins, feeding his young muscles and bones with strength enough to not only heft and carry the adult biker, but to RUN.

The biker smells of blood, frostbite, booze, and fouler things, but the sixth grader miraculously does not lose his grip. Nor does his footing fail. His heart feels like it is about to burst. But he doesn’t stop. He doesn’t slow. He runs. The howls of the pack become a distant keen on the wind. He runs. The howls die in the darkness. He runs. He smashes through branches, not stopping as they whip his face and threaten to trip his feet. He runs. And he reaches Red Aspen.

Brook: He runs.

Brook feels his body start to scream. Heavy copper blood in his mouth from biting down mixing with the taste of the snot leaking down on his lips, tears stinging his eyes. Ko’komiki’somm feels… alive. As though the moon as summoned drums. As though the world is just this moonlit train in the forest, the slumbering pines around him each beating a drum, the moon leading the ritual. Putting a chant in their hearts that reaches Brook.

RUN!

Everything hurts. Everything feels as though he’s being ripped up from the inside out.

Brook runs.

Coming out of the tree line, his stone fortress calls him, and everything begins to shake. The 12-year-old’s arms fail, his legs give out, everything all at once as he plummets just feet from his front door, sobbing hysterically in pain with what little breath his burning lungs will let him without agony. His face cuts and marks on the pebble studded snow, the smell of gasoline and blood heavy as he writhes with the weight of the biker still warmed by his burning back. Keeping his heart beating, Brook hopes. What’s next takes everything left in the boy, the last of his fear summoned energy.

Brook howls, his voice spitting blood out on the snow as he screams as loud as his throat can handle, straight at that heavy wooden door.

GM: The primal howl echoes across the summit of Ksah-koom-aukie’s Breast. Atop that peak, Akipunni Station, stands vigil. In the moonlight, its stone flashes like silver save for the deep, dark gouges left by generations of mad, rabid, frenzying bears, elk, cougars, moose, and worse. Tonight, Brook can almost feel those gouges on his skin, his throat, his heart. But his heart keeps beating and his throat does not choke as he gives himself to his atavistic howl. Somewhere, from some unseen distant summit or hollow, other howls rip at the night’s silence. Brook has little time or energy left to listen to them, though, as the door to the firewatch station flies open.

Mary Madcatcher stands in the threshold, stout and strong as her firewatch station. She brandishes a pump shotgun and lit kerosene torch in each hand. The latter’s blue flame casts Mary’s androgynous, leathery face in a wild, menacing light. Gazing upon his mother now, Brook must reconsider the local icebox gossip: perhaps his adopted mother did rip off the balls of a live, raging grizzly bear with her bare hands. Her fearsome mien softens or at least pauses as she regards her son. Her dark eyes crease with concern… and maybe awe or love… or is it fear?

But her expression hardens like flint as she makes out the identity of the blue-skinned biker slung across her son’s back. Her brow creases so sharply, Brook thinks it could chop down a tree. She shuts off the kerosene torch and strides forcefully towards her spent boy. With one hand, she far from gently picks up the injured, dying biker, relinquishing her son of his burden, and drops the freezing man like unwanted dung. She spares a moment to sweep her taut gaze down encroaching forest slopes before turning to her son. That same gaze similarly inspects him: for danger, injury, and trouble.

The biker groans as gravel shifts beneath his weight. He repeats the song, but this time his words are so very weak and broken: “…gae soon to Damburrow toon… up… lapse… sure to comme ’roon… aslythin like snaykes thrw the grasse…”

The movement of dark wings flit into a nearby ponderosa. Its boughs hide the bird, but its nocturnal cry cuts all too clearly in the quiet wake of Brook’s howl: a whippoorwill.

Brook: Brook swears he can feel the howls answer him, even after the true alpha of the forest all but kicks open the door to paradise open, fire and death in each hand. Like she’s not heard a boy, but an animal howl at her door. Maybe she’s right. Shaking and desperate on the ground, her adoptive son twitching and too tired to even sob as tears streak down his cheeks. But nothing can tear his eyes away from her face, indecipherable, even to him, until her eyes narrow down onto the life he’d so viciously protected.

As Mary pulls the biker off of her son, she triggers a deep panic in his chest, his glove coming off as it pulls out from under him, raking into the frozen gravel and clawing for the body he was trying to keep warm. The rest of his body stays silent, the muscles in his side spasming and contracting, cramping and screaming at the desperate boy to go limp and stay that way. But he can’t. They all need inside. They need inside now.

Barely able to get enough air in his lungs, the whippoorwill uneases the boy just enough to keep everything burning, screaming, just awhile longer, tripping and choking on his own words. Every syllable nothing but pain to utter as his lungs burn and the core of his chest below the ribs begs him to stop. “Coyote… dead, I… still howled. The moon… it s-s-saved… th… they’re coming! H-help him!”

GM: Mary regards her son with an old pain in her eyes–or maybe one she’s long been dreading will come. She looks away at the moon, the mountain, and the man dying between them. She reignites the kerosene torch and stalks toward the biker. For one terrible moment, Brook is sure Mary is going to use the blowtorch to burn him alive. But she instead sets down the torch a safe stride away from the insensate man. Blue flame-light and black shadows war over his skin and clothes.

Meanwhile, the whippoorwill whispers its name into the night, again and again like a spiral song. Mary spares it a glance, then returns to her son. She cups her strong calloused hands on his cheeks and wordlessly presses her forehead to his. She seems to breathe into Brook a measure of… not quite calm or peace, but at least shared strength. Togetherness.

She breaks the rare moment of tenderness and begins to brush and pluck off the many branches stuck in Brook’s coat and hair. As she picks up one tiny branch, both she and Brook recognize it as being a swig of hemlock. Mary holds it before her son’s gaze and adds, “Too small to teach.”

She smiles. She then collects the small branches and twigs and a nearby brittle pine-cone and returns to the torch. Her broad flat back is turned to Brook as she squats down on her haunches. Unable to directly see what his mother is doing, he nonetheless recognizes the crackle of wood and growing glow of orange flames.

“Go inside,” Mary says. “Get supplies for the night. I will tend the fire.”

Brook: Brook doesn’t know, hasn’t stopped to think that this biker, in another state of mind might throw a bottle at him screaming ‘snow nigger’ at the top of his lungs. It isn’t about that in the young boy’s heart, either because of his reflex of duty to save the man, or the adrenaline blinding him to the consequences. Maybe both. But watching his mother stalk towards the biker, torch in hand, a glimmer of strength throbs through his body, foot dragging up, gearing to leap before the cord tightening scream of his muscles shut him down.

It’s like another weight lifts off his shoulders when the moment passes, he sees his mother’s compassion, putting the torch down before returning to him.

Affection, the feeling of thick cool skin against his cheeks, and the warm press of her forehead. It’s almost too much. Brook’s strength returns just enough for his body to reflexively shudder in an overwhelmed sob in his next breath, like simple gesture was gifted by god. Mary’s yearly joke and that rare smile only make it worse, before he gets his order and raises slowly to his feet.

Blood runs to the boy’s head as his marrow sprints to pump the energy back into his muscle, whip-poor-will mocking his weakness.

Brook returns from out of station a new man, what he’d left of the kit he took into the forest dropped to be sorted out later as he carried out arm fulls of supplies, putting his mother’s folding chair out for her by the fire, a blanket over the top half of the biker, and a pre-made splint for the leg as he carefully kneels on the opposite side of the man, getting to work. His newly loaded shotgun at his side as he glances at the tree line.

“I… I begged to get away from them. They weren’t really coyotes. Ko’komiki’somm. I think she answered me.”

His face is nervous as he looks up at his mother. He’s always resisted her stories, always pushed back against the beliefs of his people. Being a half-breed is hard, and he’s always been too spiteful to entertain his mother’s tales as anything other than campfire stories, or heavy handed anecdotes. This is different. He’s now a scared young boy fresh from hell, wondering if the moon truly cares about him. Enough to keep him awake at night.

GM: In Brook’s absence, Red Aspen’s head ranger has created a roaring fire that pushes back both cold and darkness. The crackle of logs and popping of embers drowns out the whippoorwill’s song–if indeed it remains. The nearby biker shudders as sensation slowly returns to his frost-bitten skin, but he is still supine and silent save for his chattering teeth and groans. Besides the fire, Mary has clearly made no move to help the injured man.

In contrast, she readily welcomes Brook into her circle of fire and light. Her gaze softens with appreciation as her son brings out her folding chair, and she holds her tongue as Brook resumes first aid on the biker. Shotgun in hand, she positions her chair so her back faces the firewatch station and provides an open view of the alpine mountain slope. Sitting, she remains vigilant, save for a reluctantly short glance up at the full moon.

“Ko’komiki’somm…” her flat lips whisper into the night, like a grown child speaking the name of a dead parent. She then breathes in and out, as stoking a second fire inside her mind or heart. “Two stories of Mother Moon I say now.” Shotgun cradled and ready in her lap, she begins the first.

“It is cold now, son. One summer it was just as hot. There was a girl, about your age, named Feather–Woman. Her lodge was too hot to sleep, so she went out into grass to rest. She awoke just as Morning Star, son of Mother Moon, arose. She gazed at his brightness. He was beautiful, and she could not help but love him. She woke her sisters, and said, ‘Oh, sisters, look at the Morning Star! I will never marry anybody except that Star!’”

“Her sisters laughed at her, then ran to the tribe and told the others what Feather–Woman had said. They all laughed and mocked her. But Feather–Woman, she did not care. Her heart knew what it knew. She was as she was. Each day, she woke at dawn to gaze on Morning Star.”

“One morning early, Feather–Woman went alone to the river, to fetch water for the lodge. There, she beheld a bright man standing in the river. ‘Feather–Woman,’ said he, smiling, ‘I am Morning Star. I have seen you looking, and am now come to carry you back with me to my home.’ At this, Feather–Woman shook. Then Morning Star took from his head a rich yellow plume. He placed it in her right hand, while in her other hand he put a branch of sweet wood. He said, ‘Close your eyes’. She did so.”

“When she opened her eyes, she was in the Sky–Country. She stood in front of a shining lodge, and Morning Star was by her side. This was his home, and that of his father and mother, Sun and Moon. Sun was away, working. But Ko’komiki’somm, Mother Moon, was at home. She welcomed Feather–Woman. She dressed the girl in a soft robe of buckskin trimmed with elk-teeth. When Sun came back that night, he called Feather Woman his daughter. She was married to Morning Star, and they lived happily in the shining lodge. They had a son. They named him, Poia, Star-Boy.”

“One day, Moon gave Feather–Woman a root–digging stick, and told her to go about the Sky–Country. ‘Dig up all roots–,’ she said, ‘–but one. Never touch the Great Root that grows near Spider’s lodge. Do so–,’ she warned, ‘–and unhappiness will come’.”

Mary stops momentarily as Brook resets the biker’s broken limb. Once the terrible night-rending screams end with the man passing out from pain, shock, and blood loss, Mary continues her tale:

“Day after day, Feather Woman went out and dug roots. She often saw the Great Root. She never touched it, but her heart yearned to see what lay beneath it. Curiosity grew. One day, it grew so big it swallowed her. She laid Star–Boy on the ground. She took her root-digger, then dug around the Great Root. But the digger stuck in the Root. Feather–Woman could not pull it free. She called two cranes flying overhead to help her. They sang a secret magic song, and the Great Root uprooted.”

“Then Feather–Woman looked down through the hole where the Root had been. Far below, she saw the camp of the tribe, where she had lived. Smoke rose from the lodges. She heard laughing children and singing women. Now she was swallowed by homesickness. She went back to the shining lodge, weeping.”

“As she entered, Morning Star say her tears. ‘Feather–Woman,’ he said, ‘You uprooted the Great Root!’ Sun and Moon also were sad, for they knew she disobeyed. Sad was Morning Star when he took Feather Woman by the hand, placed little Star–Boy upon her shoulder, and led her to Spider who lived in the Sky–Country. Then Spider wove a web through the hole made by the Great Root, and let Feather–Woman and her child down to earth. Her people saw her coming like a falling Star.”

“Her family welcomed her and loved little Star-Boy. But Feather Woman was unhappy. She wanted to return to Sky–Country and see Morning Star. But she wanted in vain. Soon her unhappy life ended.”

The first story told, Mary Madcatcher grows quiet. The fire crackles. She finally looks over at the now unconscious but splinted Mooner. Her flame-lit face hardens like drying leather. “Now, son, listen again.” She looks up at the moon, naked and pregnant with light.

“Once there was only one Snake. So big you could spend all your days following his scales and never see head or tail. He was fair and painted with many colors. Big Snake was proud of his clothes and had a wicked heart. Most Snakes are wicked, son, because they are his relations. You know that Sun goes early to bed, and that Moon most always leaves before he gets to the lodge. Sometimes this is not so, but that is part of another story.”

“Now Big Snake used to crawl up a high hill and watch Mother Moon in Sky–Country. He was in love with her, and she knew it. But she paid no mind. She liked his looks, for his clothes were fine, and he was always slick and smooth. This went on for a long time, but she never talked to him. Snake thought maybe the hill wasn’t high enough, so he found a higher one, and watched Moon pass. Every night he climbed a higher hill, then mountain, and motioned to her. She began to pay more attention to Big Snake, and one morning early, she loafed at her work a little, and spoke to him. He was flattered, and so was she, because he said many nice things to her, but she went on to the Sun’s lodge, and left the Snake.”

“Once there was only one Snake. So big you could spend all your days following his scales and never see head or tail. He was fair and painted with many colors. Big Snake was proud of his clothes and had a wicked heart. Most Snakes are wicked, son, because they are his relations. You know that Sun goes early to bed, and that Moon most always leaves before he gets to the lodge. Sometimes this is not so, but that is part of another story.”

She pauses momentarily as if trying to recapture her thoughts, then begins again. “Now Big Snake used to crawl up a high hill and watch Mother Moon in Sky–Country. He was in love with her, and she knew it. But she paid no mind. She liked his looks, for his clothes were fine, and he was always slick and smooth. This went on for a long time, but she never talked to him. Snake thought maybe the hill wasn’t high enough, so he found a higher one, and watched Moon pass. Every night he climbed a higher hill, then mountain, and motioned to her. She began to pay more attention to Big Snake, and one morning early, she loafed at her work a little, and spoke to him. He was flattered, and so was she, because he said many nice things to her, but she went on to the Sun’s lodge, and left the Snake.”

“The next morning very early she saw the Snake again. This time she stopped a long time–so long that Sun started out from the lodge before she reached home. He wondered what kept her so long. He suspected Snake. He thought long. He decided to watch and try to catch them together. So every morning, Sun left the lodge a little earlier than before. One morning, just as he climbed a mountain, he saw Big Snake talking to Moon. That made him angry. You can’t blame him. His wife was spending her time loafing with Snake.”

She looks back up at the sky. “When Moon saw Sun, she ran away. She ran to Sun’s lodge and left Snake on the mountain. Sun wasted no time. He grabbed Snake. Sun was angry! Big Snake begged. He promised never to speak to Moon again. But Sun had him. Sun smashed Snake into thousands of little pieces, all of different colors from the different parts of his painted body. The little pieces each turned into a little snake. Now they were all too small for Moon to notice. That is how so many Snakes came into the world.”

Mary turns to regard her son across the fire. She stands and adds another log to the flames. “Snakes. They come in many colors. Many shapes.” She looks meaningfully at the biker. The grip on her shotgun tightens.

Brook: Brook listens intently to the woman’s stories as his hands get to work bending the biker, a hand on his ankle and a hand on his knee, waiting for a suitable moment in the story to suddenly force the bone into place, rushing to brace and tie it before it bemds in a bad way. The boy sits cross legged after he’s paid a blanket over the life he’d ripped from the wood, a hand kept on his chest as he settled in to listen. Keeping feeling his breathing. If it stops, the boy has to act as fast as he can.

Both stories are heavy with meaning, making even her son stare at the moon unblinking, searching for any kind of meaning. If there’s any day he soon will listen to the stories of his people, it’s today, after Moon herself touched his heart.

But it’s a hard pill to swallow all the same, and he looks down with pity at the man he’s sure in any other situation have been his enemy. Brook wonders on the nature of a snake, looking out into the woods. It’s never been an issue for them, with the insanity these woods brought down with them each day. Reaching, Brook grabs his own shotgun off the ground and pulls the pump back, picking up the spent case off the ground, just staring at it for a moment.

“I snuck up on it. It took his finger. It was going to take his life. I… the shot was perfect. It shouldn’t have suffered. It was laying in the snow peacefully. I tended to him, but… I-It stood up. It wasn’t breathing, but it howled for the rest of its kind! I couldn’t leave him there. Not to those things. I couldn’t. Even a snake doesn’t deserve to be taken by something so WRONG.”

Gripping his own shotgun, his eyes turn back to the tree line again, unblinking. “What if I’ve been wrong to ignore your stories? What if there are spirits? If the moon… if Moon really did summon the drums I felt, and lead me out of that forest. What if I… am I only alive because the Green Lady, or a Big Water Snake lurking inside her?”

GM: “NO!”

Mary’s shout roars out so suddenly and loudly that Brook has a split second when he thinks his mother’s shotgun has fired. She turns away, her wide back and thick muscles still visible despite her Park Ranger coat. She shakes her head. Slowly. Her breath steams in the cold.

“No, son.” She turns back and kneels beside Brook. “Don’t ever say that.”

Brook: Brook jumps at the sudden yell, looking up at the mother rather fearful for a split second before he softens again. She seems distressed. Having her come to sit by him calms him a little, he looks a little ashamed now, a little scared. “What am I supposed to think, then? What am I supposed to do with all of this? Is this why I can’t sleep at night? Does the moon pay attention to me?”

GM: Mary’s flat leathery face tightens. Her jaws flexes once, twice like she’s gnawing on a tough piece of raw hide that she eventually gives up on. “I don’t know, Brook.”

She places a calloused hand on his shoulder, their faces close. “But promise me–promise me that you’ll stay away from Snakes. All of them. Moonbrood. Coyotes. Remember the Moon. Remember Feather–Woman. Don’t go digging up the Great Root.” Her hand leaves his shoulder. “It… it will only bring unhappiness.”

Brook: Brook’s head swims. Witiko Falls has been his home for as long as he can remember, but more and more he realizes the horror it holds for someone like him. His own face turns to the moon once again, and then the wood, and then to his mother’s face as she puts her hand on his shoulder. It’s not the message he’s hoping for, there’s no answers from her, just a life of fighting snakes she’s trying to make him promise to never really look at. It’s disheartening. Anger builds up in his chest more and more, but he chokes it down, looking down at the ground and clawing his fingers through the gravel. It feels like he’s suffocating.

He doesn’t know what to say, or how to say it. It’s a horrible thought, that his mother has just been fighting and fighting and fighting, and never asking questions as to how she can stop it. “Are you unhappy?”

GM: Mary’s face is backlit by the fire as she answers, “You are my happiness.”

Her rough hand then reaches back up and curls around her son’s neck in a firm mother-bear vise. Her eyes are dark as she adds, “Now promise me, Brook. Promise me you won’t go hunting for that coyote. That you’ll stay away from Snakes like this man and his brood. Promise me and Moon.”

Brook: Her answer hurts. But her question stands, and the feeling of that hand on the back of his neck drives it home that she needs him to to promise her this. “I won’t go hunting for that coyote, and I’ll try to stay away from the Moonbrood. I promise. But… but Mom, I… I still want to learn more. More about the Green Lady. More about Moon. If Moon can touch me, could we… talk?”

GM: At Brook’s promise, Mary sighs with the weight of maternal fatigue measured in years. Eight, to be exact. The creases around those eyes tighten in some private, silent war. Eventually, her dark eyes open and regard Brook. She tugs at his ear like a lupine nip, but there’s no smile on her face as she answers, “Curiosity swallowed Feather-Woman. But it is time. Or soon enough. Time to talk to great-grandmother.”

She stands and makes another long, slow scan of their surroundings. “When morning comes, I will call Nittawosew.” She looks up at the moon which still rises in the winter sky. “Tonight, there will be no rest.” She looks back to her green-eyed adopted son. “I will call an ambulance. You wait. Watch. Snakes left this one. Others tried to claim him.” She pauses, then passes him her shotgun. “More may yet.”

Brook: Brook meets his mother’s dark eyes, searching for a glimmer of understanding. Much as he knows Mary is iron-clad, she’s proven today to be more cautious than her boy can ever stand to be. The Great Root. It isn’t a perfect analogy. What if the root was on the ground here with them, what if the root peeks down into something rotten. But finally Brook’s mother says something that can calm his fear and curiosity. Great-Grandmother. Talking with elders puts him on edge, but Brook nods resolute. Taking his mother’s gun and smoothing his hand over it, a look not unlike his mother’s flint hardened glare passes over at the darkness of the tree line.

“They’ll try.”

Pointedly, he holds up the blown out slug casing he’d used to put the coyote under the snow, a shiver going through his form before he shoves it into the breast pocket of his jacket, his hand returning to the Biker’s forehead after getting out a canteen of water, hoping he’ll wake up soon. But a lump in his throat forms rather quickly, remembering again why he was in those woods to begin with. How small and petty that little fight seems now.

“Mom? I… I’m sorry if I worried you, I don’t—I mean with Nelson. I got so angry, and… it was stupid. I’m sorry.”

GM: Mary picks up the small switch of hemlock and tosses it into the still-roaring fire. As she walks into the station, Brook hears her words carried on the wind:

“Maybe not too small to teach.”

GM: As Brook turns his attention back to his now stabilized ‘patient’, the preteen has his first chance to inspect the man whom he saved from the coyote horror.

Fortunately for both the biker and Brook, he’s a small man. Thick elbows. Round shoulders. Stomach like a whole-boned ham. He’s middle-aged, but his facial features have some undefinable impish quality otherwise marred by unkempt ugliness. His gray–spit hair is wild, from his gnarled mutton–chops to his partial unibrow. His black leather jacket bears a full moon patch, and his neck is adorned with several chains, featuring bats, dragons, and ineffable shapes. His long-johns are torn and one sleeve bloodied from his torn off finger. His jeans have old bullet-holes in them that hint at dark tattoos.

Brook: Despite his mother’s distaste and outright hate for the man, Brook has a hard time straying from the snake in biker’s clothes, keeping him breathing steadily with a canteen nearby for when he wakes up. He’ll be sore as all hell, but damned if he isn’t going to live through it after today. Tattoos have always fascinated the young man, always having wanted to get, despite the very real possibility his mother won’t let him see another day. But they’re only so interesting for awhile, Brook shaking the man.

“Wake up, big guy, we’ve gotta get water into you so you can warm yourself up.”

GM: The biker slowly rouses. His dilated pupils remain loose marbles in his eyes. He opens his mouth, and Brook sees his teeth–which resemble a busted piggy bank someone tried to glue back the shards into place, and failed. Badly.

The man barks out, his arms flailing weakly. “Dinnae flap! I widnae buy frae that sleekit bastart!” Brook can almost see the line of pain jolt from the man’s gnawed off finger to his addled brain. “Dobbers!” He stops flailing. Mostly. His two eyes momentarily focus on Brook. He gives a snaggle- and gap–toothed grin.

Laird_Duff.jpg

Brook: Brook pulls his hood down, showing off the short jet black hair on his head as well as a relieved smile, even as the man flails around in a silly-looking panic. Despite how ugly he is, he’s still alive. Rather it was a life without dentists, bad genes, or too many blows to the face, the accent is the ugliest thing about him. He’s barely intelligible. Once he calms down and even grins up at his young savior, Brook offers him the canteen full of water. Even snakes gotta drink.

“Your leg is broken and your pinkie was gnawed off by a coyote. But you’re alive. The ambulance is coming to pick you up now.”

GM: The man’s breath reeks of hard booze, as he takes to the canteen like a teat. “Ah mad wae it, loon… but I cannae say nae to a bevy.” He sips, coughs, and sputters as the water hits him. He shivers viciously, as if finally realizing he’s thawing from near full-body frostbite. He closes his eyes. “It’s chankin!”

And then, as if Brook’s words slowly reach the man’s besotted brain, his eyes yell open as he holds up his hand and sees–or more accurately does not see–his missing finger. “Ma facking hawn!”

Brook: It’s starting to make more and more sense as Brook listens to the man, hoping it’ll keep on that way as he keeps watch over the man. Everything is going to hit him at once, the young mutt knows this, and as it happens he already knows what he should say to get him calm and collected. Brook shoves his hand in his pocket and pulls out the spent casing, showing it to the biker with a bit of a grin on his own face. If he keeps it around, he’ll just wonder harder, anyway.

“The ambulance is on it’s way, they’ll have something to take the pain away. As for the coyote, it was chewing on you pretty hard until I put a slug in it’s skull. Keep this, it saved your life.”

GM: The biker takes the spent casing and stares at it long and hard, as if he’s wondering whether he should eat it or worship it. He squints, his pupils playing pinball once more. “Hawd, the laddies and ah… horra sesh… rat-arsed… radge… cannae ’member…” He looks down as his splint leg. “O’ dunderhead, ah chatty’d ma breeks!” He struggles to look around. “Gaun yersel, Laird Duff, yer a bampot!”

Brook: Brook keeps his seat and watches him, peeking up to check the tree line and then the road, hoping for an ambulance. But it’s better to keep him talking, keep his mind off his injuries while making him aware of them so he doesn’t freak out. With the casing out of his hands now, he feels a little better, and even the biker is trying to put himself back together. Even dropping his name, or so the youngster thinks.

“Laird Duff? Is that your name? I’m Brook Barnes, a ranger.”

GM: The biker shivers, the shell held fast in his unmaimed hand. He gives another dentists’ nightmare–smile. “Brook Barnes… why yer jist a wee bairn! Foos yer doos?”

Brook: Brook’s lost the plot. Wee ‘bairn’ is clear enough, in the sense that bairn doesn’t have to mean anything for the mutt to know he’s being called a kid. But ‘Foos yer doos’? Celtic punk is the only reason he’s gotten this far, but what the everliving fuck. He ignores it, looking over at the tree line again. “You said you didn’t remember what happened? I had to carry you and run.”

GM: “Mah manky burd… she cowked af’er gobbin’ me…” He looks at Brook again as if registering the youth’s claim. “Where am ah?”

Brook: “Red Aspen. The ranger station. You’re safe, I promise.”

GM: He groans. “O’ ma heid. Ma hawn… Ah am maist oot yer nut…” A log pops in the fire, sending a shower of embers into the air.

Brook: Gibberish again. At least the second part. Brook all but gives up. “Just rest, the ambulance will have morphine for your hand and leg.”

GM: He smiles again. “Meltit ’ere ah cumm…” He gives a chuckle that makes him subsequently wince and wheeze with pain. “Bout now, ah jist need a peedy tan…” He eyes the canteen.

Brook: Brook just smiles and offers it to him right away, knowing that the best thing for him right now was to get something in him. After such a rough night especially. The young boy doesn’t say a word, not knowing… exactly what he’s replying to if he does.

GM: He nods in gratitude after the drink, his eyes slowly settling. “Bawsack, it’s baltic ootside, laddie…” He crooks a finger for the boy to come closer.

Brook: Brook chuckles, finally something he understands, it’s cold as the Baltic. But the Mooner has a blanket, and the fire is still roaring. As the biker asks him to come closer, the boy unfolds his legs and carefully puts the gun back behind him, shuffling in closer and leaning over just a little, like they’re sharing a secret.

GM: The man’s drunken breath hits Brook’s ear as the biker whispers, “Maebee och awa an dinna talk pish… er no. Ah din tink no… Laird Duff thanks ye, laddie, uncoly… nou ah aint ‘ave ma spondoolies… but yer a cannie loon.. ah’ma gie’s ye a big yin…”

He unfolds his hand with the shotgun shell, then points to his necklaces as if indicating Brook should choose one. There are seven total, and he (presumably) counts each one. “Ane, twa, three, fower, five, sax, sieven.” All seven necklaces appear to be made of gold chains, though each has a distinct medallion hanging from its nadir.

The first is mushroom forged of some dark material.

The second looks like a misshapen cloud or half-kneaded pile of dough.

The third is a bird, a whippoorwill.

The fourth is a small plain locket.

The fifth is dragon made of some green gemstone.

The sixth is a bat.

The seventh is a heart.

Brook: Brook keeps up with the man for the most part in what he’s saying. That he thanks the young man, and that he didn’t have his… spondoodlies? Some kinda cookie? Like snickerdoodles? But he gets the message clear when the biker opens up and offers him things from the selection of medallions. It’s incredibly generous! And turning this down is rude. Snake may be beautiful, but many animals reward kindness towards them. Snakes keep away rats. Crows bring you baubles.

“This is very generous! I was just doing my job, I… thank you.”

Looking through them as he counts them off, he can’t help but feel guilty to be taking these. He can’t take the locket, much as he’s curious as to what’s inside, it may be personal. But the heart? That’s something he can relate to, the boy a sixth grade ball of hormones, and falling for every girl who so much as looked at him. Cautiously, Brook nods to the seventh.

“I’m a bit of a sap, Mr. Duff. I’ll wear it every day.”

GM: ‘Laird Duff’, if that indeed is his name, smiles widely with his crooked mishmashed teeth. “Tekul… hoora tekul.” With help, he slides off the necklace. It hangs from well-worn white gold. Two hoops hang those chains. The first holds an anatomical heart made of iron or so alloy the preteen cannot place. There is some inscription on its loop that Brook cannot make out in the flickering firelight. The second, lesser medallion seems to be made of a lighter metal wound around a dark red gemstone that swallows the fire.

Heart_Necklace.jpg

“Haur ye gae!” the biker says with another puckish, horrid-toothed grin.

As Brook slips on the necklace, the man’s grin changes. Transforms. Something seems to slither up the man’s eyes and face, a wave of something ineffable and awful, something that smells of childhood nightmares, or night-terrors that made and still make him wet his pants.

The biker clutches at the boy with his hand, holding the already close youth even closer till he is nearly gnawing on Brook’s ear. Brook feels, smells, and tastes the mingling of fear-sweat and foul booze and fouler chemicals leaking from the biker. Leaking. Spreading. Infecting.

“Dinnae be feart ta confront yerself, laddie! Dinnae deny wha ye am! Yer yaks gobbed din truth tonite. Ye leuk’d inwith tonite, ye’ve seen yer inner be’en fer what tis. Tha openin’ of yer yak, laddie, tha firs’ leuk beyond, tha entrance to tha Een Circle –ye’ve fackin’ made it! Ye cannae turn ‘way from tis darkness–tis inwith ye! Suppressin’ tha dubh jist gaes it mair power tah slitter tha blind side o’ yer soul! Dis is tha pit at tha center o’ a’thing–ye gotta dive in and fackin’ stare it dunn, laddie, list ye fall to tha clutches o’ foebok and cumm a slave ta fear!!!!”

The voice of the man–if he is one–transforms into the sound of rushing waters. His fingers turn into a burlap sack of sheet that swallows up Brook in its tangled, freezing wet cloth. The fire, light, and heat instantly vanish into abyssal darkness.

GM: Strong arms heft the four–year–old Brook from the frigid river. The murderous swaddling is pulled back. Writing is on the bed-sheet, written in blood so thick and foul that the river could not–can never–wash it away. The river’s currents shift, changing from alpine water to blood to water to millions of pills.

p u t i t b a c k

The transmogrifying current whispers.

p u t

i t

b a c k

The currents swirl around two strong legs, creating eddies of shifting spirals.

p u t

i t

b a c k

i t w i l l d e s t r o y y o u

y o u r t r i b e

y o u r t o w n

p u t i t b a c k

Pills. Water. Blood. The strong hands begin to rewrap the young child in the wet, suffocating cloth. Soaked with water. Pills. Blood. Brook feels the darkness re–swallowing him as his small body is being entombed alive in soaking, gore–stained swaddling.

Brook: Everything shifts. First comes the snake’s crooked smile, then the young man as he’s pulled, and then simply everything. Suddenly Brook finds himself where everything has began, his oldest and more terrifying memory, made even more WRONG. Soaked burlap rubs his hands and feet raw as he struggles, limbs flailing, reaching for what he hopes is the sky, despite passing rocks sometimes battering his hands and legs.

Water. Blood. Pills.

It’s little comfort as someone plucks him from the seizure-inducing shifting of the river from familiarity, to sanguine terror, to a confusing nightmare. Exhaustion is the smallest thing in his mind at the moment, the small bundle of terror grabbing tight to the strong hands as his follow the burlap bag’s writing, looking for a way out. Some kind of hint on how best to struggle. But he hears the whispers, the river promising who he can only assume is his mother that he is evil. That he’s a bringer of ends.

Brook struggles again, screaming and kicking his legs as he’s suddenly wrapped up again. This isn’t right, this isn’t how the story ends, this isn’t how he dies! Swirling thick fear breaks, and the child feels it turn from horror, to desperation, and finally to rage. Falling silent, the child takes as much of a lung full as he can, letting everything out in one last defiant howl. As if he intends to break the burlap, the river, and even the hands pushing him back under. It isn’t Mary. She doesn’t put him back.

GM: The strong hands wrap the bloody cloth around and around him, an ever tightening and suffocating cocoon. The burlap’s weft and weave silence his scream. Crying will not free him. Mary does not care. Nor does the river. They know. What he is. What he will become.

p u t i t b a c k

Water. Pills. Blood.

p u t i t b a c k

Water. Pills. Blood.

The river begins to seep into the cloth.

Seep into his lungs.

Water. Pills. Blood.

Brook: It rattles in the child’s head for a split second before his hands get to work. Screaming won’t save him, and if people won’t listen to his voice, he’ll- he’ll!

PUT ME DOWN!”

Brook lashes out, he bites and claws at the hands holding him, through the cloth, even his tiny feet digging toenail into the burlap hard enough he’s sure he’s ripping them off. It’s base, primal, and as his doom nears, the bag starts to fill, he cares less and less about the taste of blood in his mouth, or the incredible pain coming from his fingers and toes. He can almost feel his death, and he plans to face it fighting.

GM: He fights in vain. Will he die in vain? He’s too small, too weak. The cloth is too strong. Around and around. The strong hands tie the strands together into a constricting, tightening web. The river sucks the boy down its dark currents.

Blood. Pills. Water.

w h a t w i l l y o u d o

It’s whispering to him. It’s killing him.

w h a t

w i l l

y o u

d o

Brook: Vain or not, Brook keeps fighting. Whatever this is, whatever he’s been thrust into, he fights! This isn’t how the story ends, this isn’t how he dies, and the whispering can go FUCK itself. But these strong hands, these aren’t the hands that raised him, the ones that taught him how to fight. How to fight smart, to make it a hunt. The child lets his body go limp, relaxes with eyes closed, waiting for the hands to let go, thinking their job done. If he can’t force his way out, he’ll think his way out, preparing to spring the moment the hands release him, and answers the whispers only internally.

I will fight. With every last breath. Whatever I have to, for what I have to protect. Let me go.

GM: Every last breath. This one may be it. And he sucks it down, fighting against the panic as the cloth drops down hard into the river. It’s completely black. Cold. Suffocating. He can’t move. Can’t breathe.

w h a t e v e r y o u h a v e t o

The river continues to whisper. Continues to try to seep through the cloth-cocoon. Seep into his nose, his mouth, his ears.

y o u w a n t t o b e f r e e

Brook: Brook’s plan has worked, as the hands wrapped him, he paid attention to rather he’s cocooned left or right. With all his power, he keeps fighting, imitating the Nile’s apex predator and rolling, spinning, spiraling the burlap sack, in an attempt to unwind himself. It’s cold, it keeps him awake. It’s black, it just blocks another sense so he can concentrate. It’s suffocating, a deep frustration in his gut pushing him on. Brook snarls at nothing, prepared to fight until his every light goes off.

WHATEVER I HAVE TO! I want to be free. I will be free. I’ll hunt anything that hurts my forest, my town, my family! FUCK not being curious. FUCK not being angry about how things are. I WILL FIGHT!

GM: So enraged, the boy’s death–spirals tear apart his woven web. His bestial scream tears from his lips and the river rushes in. It is no longer water nor pills. Only blood. It does not matter whose. He swallows it. It swallows him.

GM: Brook ‘awakens’ upon Ksah-koom-aukie’s Breast. Blood fills his mouth and flows down his chin. The biker’s blanket has been torn to shreds, fibers and strands still drift weakly in the cold winter air. The fire is gone. The man is gone. Ko’komiki’somm sinks in the dark sky. She is still far from her lodge in Sky-Country, but she is tired. Weary.

As Brook stares down at the tatter–torn blanket, the moonlight reveals the cloth scraps are splattered with blood. The pre-teen feels his gorge rise, as if an entire river of blood wants to rush out of his mouth, but somehow the youth swallows it down. Again. A whippoorwill flits to a closer, shadowed bough, and sings.

Its nocturnal cry is interrupted as Mary Madcatcher once again bursts down the station’s front door. Her black eyes widen as she regards her adopted son. His green eyes. His bloody mouth. His fists clutching torn fabric.

Brook: Blood. Thick, warm, life-giving.

Brook startles ‘awake’, noticing the darkness of the camp site, the absence of the man, and…what’s in his hands. Blood, fiber gore, and a sense that something important has just transpired that he can’t put his finger on. It’s awful. It’s sickening. His body fights the urge to vomit, and he has to spit out a chunk of a meal he’d had the previous day, that somehow made it through the slop shoved in his gullet. Nothing registers in the pre-teen’s mind, until he feels the crusted plasma of dried blood on his chin. It’s a flash of a thought, but it’s there, the worst case.

When his mother kicks open the door, he barely hears it, he only hears the deafening warnings of a bird he feels ‘his people’ are right to be wary of. He just stares weakly back at her a moment, his body shivering, before he looks confused back down at the bed, at what’s in his hands, and the dark fire-spot. His tired body and fractured mind seem to just watershed what he knows he should be feeling, all he feels is this queasy confusion, a numbness he can’t place.

“I-I just… he was… the river. Pills. Water. Blood.” Brooks collapses over on his side, limp.

GM: Mary rushes to rescue the boy. Just as she did eight years ago. This time, it’s the whippoorwill rather than the river that sings the same words from that fateful day:

i t w i l l d e s t r o y y o u

This time, she wraps him in nothing but her own strong arms and races him inside their home. Her arms are strong. But the boy is growing. She holds him tight. But he will break free.

Thursday evening, 9 October 1998

GM: Ash falls from the still–extended joint like snow, prompting Brook to remember his last run-in with the Moonbrood.

Brook: Brook’s face falls at the memories flooding back, the taste of blood in his mouth again. Whose blood, it doesn’t matter, but it brings back plenty of horror, plenty of memories, and even more frustrations. Just one name, though.

Still ignoring the silent one close to him, he doesn’t break eye contact with the alpha, reaching up to his neck and pulling on the chain, bringing out the heart. He’s kept it with him all these years, and he doesn’t leave it out too long for the bikers to see, lest they take it from him if Laird Duff never made it back. After all this, perhaps it’s a way out, or at least a way to have these bikers think they know him.

“Laird Duff. His patch looked almost like yours. I don’t know exactly what happened that night, but I know he was one of you, wasn’t he?”

GM: Necklace and name give the bikers pause.

With Brook’s gaze fixed on the hulking alpha, the teen cannot be sure, but he thinks even the silent roadkill–eyed man takes a step back.

The woman licks her lips. Nervously? Hungrily? Brook does not know.

The bucket–helmeted older man begins scratching his arms. “Dribbles, dribbles, dribbles…” he repeats with a rising tic in his face.

“Laird?” the chained one asks, looking around at the others, unsure. “You mean the leprechaun?” he asks again, but receives a tight chain-jerk from his partner, who in turn silently stares at Brook’s medallion like he could eat it with his eyes.

“Shut your man-hole, prospect,” the alpha says, reproaching the black–moon patch wearing biker. “Al would flay your lady finger for saying he’s Irish.”

The bearded giant takes the smoldering joint back from his rider’s hand. “You’re Mary’s whelp.” It’s not a question.

Behind him, the short old biker continues to scratch like he’s caught mange. “Driiiiiiibbbbles,” he mutters between tics.

Brook: Brook stands his ground, eyes flashing over the chain gimp for a moment, before locking right back on the alpha. Though he can see that back-o-the-bike bitch licking her lips out the corner of his eye. Everything seems to give him a little space at the revelation. He’s not just some timber nigger stuck out in the middle of the road.

“Name’s Brook. Your friend Laird was out in the woods with a real cleanly broken leg and a lotta bad shit in his system. I dragged him—most of him—off a dinner plate. Is he still alive? I got questions for ’em. He showed me something. Something important about myself.”

GM: The massive alpha male eyes the tall adolescent as he sucks down the last of his joint. He flicks the spent weed-wrappings into the road. Brook’s gaze watches as the lipstick–smeared, paper-wrapped weed spirals through the air, smashing into the black asphalt, its psychotropic contents bursting and breaking in the wind.

The bearded giant sets down his bike and swings a meaty leg off his hog. “Blueballs Boone,” the biker says, presumably in reciprocated introduction. A last tendril of smoke escapes from his mouth, only to be sucked up his nostril.

‘Boone’ reaches into his pocket, and pulls out a tiny plastic bag. Inside is what appears to be a dollar bill, though its denomination is unclear due to the folds. The denim-clad biker gives Brook the plastic-sealed bill with a palmed handshake. Returning to his bike, he adds, “If you’re looking for answers on Duff, call the number.”

The other bikers seem to swivel their heads between Brook and Boone. None gainsay their evident leader, though.

Brook: Brook straightens his back when the alpha steps off his bike, rather he’s trying to appear bigger than he is, or just fix his posture to be polite, he can’t tell. It’s like a reflex in the presence of someone this large. Though his mother elicits much the same reaction. But as he steps up to the teen, and hands him the number, the teen is just as confused as he was before he asked the question. But it’s a step closer. Snake den or not, that night is… horror, and horror needs answers. Maybe Feather-Woman would pull that root faster if the sky was drowning in the same filth Witiko Falls is.

“Thanks, Boone. You got no idea how much this means after three years. How ’bout the red-eyed rider? One of you, or… just another devil in the Falls?”

GM: Boone re-saddles his hog, causing the black and chrome machine to sink into its shocks. His old lady begins rubbing the man’s thick thighs. The alpha ignores her, but turns back to the ranger cadet and answers: “When I blow up your ass, you’ll know whether it’s smoke or something else. As I said, these here are the Devil’s roads, and we’re riding after him.”

Brook: Much as the young man doesn’t desire the chewed up and spit out looking woman, the moment she pays attention to her man Brook feels a jealous absence. But he doesn’t let it interrupt their talk, and he thinks on the man’s words. Smoke. It’s nothing that makes good sense, but he nods all the same. It’s something he’ll have to look into himself or otherwise just avoid. There’s so much on his plate already.

“He doesn’t seem to like me, so I’ll leave these roads to you until I get the call to clear a furry corpse off it.”

GM: “Haps you jus’ needs to get to know ’im, sweetie,” the old woman says, slowly opening the side of her faux-fur coat to flash a pendulous breast. “Know what they says ’bout the devil you knows…” She licks her lips again.

“Dribbles,” echoes the biker behind them, his scratching subsided but not wholly abated.

The other men simmer like the heat that radiates off their hogs’ chop-block engines. Brook can feel the rising excitement, the near rev of the motors, the tense readiness of a pack about to ride.

The alpha cranks his hog, hard, but Brook still hears him as he turns again and says, “You could join us, you know.”

Brook: Brook’s eyes snap to the woman’s chest, betraying his hormones before he wrenches his gaze back to the alpha. Of all the times and places for a boy to see his first pair of tits, it just makes that absence grow bigger, making him think of June and Leanne, that lady cop, and even that redhead at the Shop-Plus. Above the din of motors, though, he hears the offer. It’s strange, but as much as he idolizes the freedom, he doesn’t jump at the chance. There’s things he has to do, promises to keep, responsibilities to fulfill.

“I don’t think I can, Boone. At least not yet. But hopefully I’ll see you again.”

GM: “Maybe sooner than you think,” Boone answers enigmatically before signaling to his pack to mount up. “The Devil’s not riding a tricycle–get riding!”

The other bikers comply all too willingly: shooting, hooting, and howling as they rev up and race away on the morbidly-named trail. Brook is left in the dark center of exhaust fumes and spiraling black tire-marks.

Kurt: Mind’s Eye


GM: “Kurt… my baby… my son… you’re… awake!”Arlene Crawford rushes into the room. Her sleep-deprived and teary eyes are framed by her creased, worn–out, stress–ridden face. Her reddish-blonde hair has the look of someone who just woke up from sleeping, and not sleeping, on a hospital chair. She’s dressed in jeans, her beat-up tennis shoes, but she’s wearing a faded sweatshirt with Cinderella on it, an old souvenir purchased during one of the Crawford’s vacations to Disney World–back in the halcyon days long passed. She throws her arms around him. “Kurt… it’s me… I’m here…”

Kurt: Kurt sighs out of relief; he missed his mother far too much. He accepts the hug, but looks up at his mother’s worn, tired face with a put-on bewildered expression. “Who are you?” he asks his mother. He then cracks a smile after a few seconds, which quickly turns into a cheesy, big grin. I am the master of pranks.

GM: For the briefest of moments, all color and light drain from his mother’s face. But then, after he cracks his familial sardonic grin, she all but smacks him, then hugs him tightly. “Kurt! Don’t… you…”

Kurt: Kurt guffaws. “Sorry ma! I couldn’t help it! You’re just so serious!”

GM: But she can’t finish, she’s simply too happy to have him back–her son.

“About time you woke up, lazy bones,” comes a voice from the hall.

Kurt: Kurt hugs his mother back, because he felt the same way–-he had his mother back. The memory of his mother’s foaming, bleeding form causes Kurt to squeeze her tighter.

Kurt then turns toward the voice.

GM: Kurt’s sister Amy is standing in the doorway, dressed in jeans and a black hoodie with a logo that says Cthulhu Loves Pie. She glares at Kurt like only a red-headed sister can, then bursts into laughter and runs to him, hugging him almost as tightly as their mom.

Arlene strokes Kurt’s hair with her calloused fingers. “We were so worried. The doctors weren’t sure… if… when…” She chokes up.

Amy lays a comforting hand on her mother’s back.

Kurt: “I won’t lie. I feel like crap. But, honestly, it’s just a broken foot and a really sore head.” Kurt adds, “I was pretty lucky. How’s the car?”

GM: With Arlene still recollecting herself, it’s Amy that answers: “Remember what Demogorgon did to your wizard back in the Temple of Ook-Oz? It’s like that, but worse.” She leans in and whispers only half-sarcastically: “Were you drinking?”

“Amy!” Arlene says, snapping back at her eldest with a half-wounded, half-scolding tone.

Amy raises her hands, palms up, as if that’s the most reasonable explanation for all this mess.

Arlene touches her son’s cheek. “Don’t worry about the car, baby. You’re awake, and that’s all that matters.”

Kurt: Kurt chuckles and shakes his head at the half-accusation. “I never drink, Amy,” he replies with a cheeky smile creeping on his face. “I am the good child, remember?”

GM: “Lying bastard is more like it,” she says, sticking out her tongue.

Kurt: Kurt laughs some more.

GM: “That’s enough,” Arlene says, though not without a smile at seeing the good-natured banter between her children.

Kurt: Kurt looks to his mother and gasps in mock-shock. “Fiiiine.” Kurt looks for something to eat; his stomach growls a little. “Have they delivered more food for me?” he asks.

GM: “My growing boy,” Arlene says with simple maternal pride. “I’ll see if they can bring you an early lunch, or otherwise I’ll go to the vending machine.”

Kurt: “Thanks, Ma.”

GM: She hugs and kisses him as if her love alone will make sure he stays awake and recovers.

As she leaves, Amy, sitting on Kurt’s bed with her bony hip half-digging into his, leans in. “So were you? Drinking that is?”

Kurt: Kurt snorts. “What? No way! It was still dark when I got up to go pick up ma from work.” He scrunches his nose a little and admits with a touch of embarrassment, “Don’t tell ma this, but I fell asleep at the wheel.” He adds, “I don’t want her to worry about me working too much, y’know.”

GM: Amy regards him for a while. “You had us so freaked, Kurt.” She starts to tear up, then wipes her face. “Fuck that.”

Kurt: “You look so weird when you cry.” Kurt smiles innocently like only a pest of a little brother can do.

GM: “Yeah, well you look like shit.” She forces herself to laugh.

Kurt: Kurt laughs at that.

GM: “You really do,” she says.

Kurt: “Do you have a mirror?” he asks, afraid of seeing his own reflection. Afraid of not seeing his own reflection.

GM: “I’m afraid you’d break it. Seriously, you look like Frankenstein had sex with a poodle and the condom broke. An ugly poodle too.”

Kurt: “Jesus!” Kurt says. “Thanks for the sympathy, big sis!”

GM: “Oh, speaking of Jesus,” Amy says, blowing her red hair out of her face. “Mom was out of her mind. I mean, she’s been praying and going full on holy roller mode. It’s been… nuts.”

Kurt: Kurt cringes and groans. “The last thing we need is Jesus in our lives,” he replies to that revelation.

GM: “Yeah, I’m hoping she’ll forget about all those midnight chapel prayers.” She then taps Kurt.

Kurt: Kurt frowns at that, noticing the plural in ‘prayers’. “How long was I out?” he asks.

GM: “Scoot over, bum. You’ve been sleeping for two days now in a, well not comfy bed, but a bed. Those waiting room chairs are like the brain-child of a sadistic chiropractor from hell.”

Kurt: Kurt feels a little numb at that explanation, but nevertheless scoots over as directed by his sister. “That’s longer than I thought,” he replies to Amy. “I told the doctor I thought it was the 8th of October.”

GM: She lays down beside him and sighs, “It’s the 10th. Friday.”

Kurt: “Yay!” Kurt says mockingly. “The weekend! Woo?” He then adds under his breath, “You’re so freaking bony!”

GM: “Beats being ugly and short. And gimp.”

Kurt: “Ha! You’re short, too!”

“Fuck!” Kurt looks at his foot. “This is totally going to mess with basketball.”

GM: Amy closes her eyes. “Yeah, it’s going to fuck with everything. Mom’s in denial. I think she had to be. But this is bad, Kurt. I mean, without the car… and the doctor bills. I tried talking to Mom. I think it might work if Rick and I move back in.”

Kurt: Kurt gets quiet as he listens to Amy.

GM: “Help with rent.”

Kurt: “Yeah.” Kurt pauses. He doesn’t like Rick, and the idea of that guy moving back in, that annoys him. But he feels absolutely powerless. “I can talk to my boss Mordecai. Maybe he’ll help out?” he asks. Speaking of, Kurt thinks to himself, probably should give him a call.

GM: “Maybe,” she says staring up at the ceiling, “But I thought you said the cinema’s almost belly-up, and has been for years.”

Kurt: “Yeah. It is.” Kurt adds, “But I know he’s got a car that he’s trying to sell.”

GM: She turns on her side, facing him. She rests her chin on his shoulder and puts her arm around him like they used to on the farm’s hammock.

Kurt: “I could organize a payment plan or something with him,” Kurt offers. “And maybe work it off at the cinema.” He hugs Amy back, thankful for the contact after a rough couple days.

GM: “Yeah, or you could start pimping Wilson out to the old lonely ladies of St. Enoch’s?”

Kurt: “They wouldn’t have him. We’ve already tried.” Kurt grins at that.

GM: She smiles, then sniffs him with mock exaggeration. “You smell like my cleaning bucket.”

Kurt: “Is that a good thing?”

GM: “For how you usually smell? Yeah, it’s an improvement.”

Kurt: Kurt guffaws. “Why do I even bother trying to trade barbs?” He then lifts his bum in Amy’s general direction, attempting to fart.

GM: But unfortunately for both of them, multiple days of a saline diet and left-out egg salad sandwich make for terribly wet, loose stool.

“Wha–fuck!?” Amy yells as Kurt soils him and her, given his lack of clothing beneath his back-slit hospital gown.

Kurt: Kurt’s face whitens. “Shit.”

GM: She leaps up and punches him. “You just shit on me!”

Kurt: “Sorry! I didn’t mean to! I thought it was a fart! I swear I didn’t mean that!”

GM: She looks down at her brown-smeared jeans.

Kurt: “Fuck!” Kurt swears. “I am so, so sorry, Amy.”

GM: “Jesus fucking Christ, Kurt!”

Kurt: “I know Amy! It’s fucking horrible!”

GM: “Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain,” comes their mother’s voice around the bend.

Kurt: Kurt’s face is in his hands and his cheeks are flushed. “God!” he exclaims. “The last thing I need is religion! I need a nurse! And a change of sheets!”

GM: Amy stares down at her jeans, agog and gaging. Arlene enters in on the scene. It is an awkward time for all.

Kurt: But mostly for Kurt.

GM: Mostly.

Brook: Skin Deep


AM_old_b_w.png

Thursday night, 9 October 1998

GM: The rest of Brook’s ride to Red Aspen is–thankfully if unsurprisingly–uneventful. By the time Brook parks his truck on the pinging gravel area beside the station, thunderheads actively crawl across the sky, and the wind bends the pines with a rustle that echoes through the alpine valleys and crags.

Brook: Brook feels on edge through the entire drive up into his stony bastion, expecting a thunderclap to sound and a huge bird to land on his truck. Or for a vampire to jump out in front of his truck in an attempt to commit suicide. As much as both thoughts unease the teen, the deep-seated frustration over the stacking mysteries growing more and more as he dwells on it. On the vision. Put him back.

Once the teen reaches Red Aspen, it’s apparent that he’s in for quite the light show. It’s a great night night for him to take out a camera in between bolts of lightning.

GM: Beyond the threatening storm, Brook spots another sign of trouble: Chet is already waiting for him by the door, keys in hand. He doesn’t even wait for Brook to turn off the ignition switch before he jogs over to the driver’s window.

“I gotta ski-daddle, kid,” Chet says, pulling up his uniform’s hood and then smoothing his mustache as he tries to recall the list of information he’s supposed to convey. “So the walrus has us all hands on deck, combing the park trails. Everybody’s pulling an all-nighter. Your mom’s directing things on the ground, and I’m about to join her and the others. There’s a lot of chatter pinging back and forth, so keep the lines clear.”

He glances up as a splatter of rain hits the truck’s hood. “Dang,” he laments, then turns back to Brook. “So, just stand by in case anybody needs you, but we’ve got it covered. What else, oh yeah, your mom said to ‘do your homework’. Not kidding. She made me repeat it back to her.”

Chet looks somewhat sheepish and pushes his glasses up on his nose. “But heh, there’s some of that Britters’ ice cream in the freezer.” He smiles, then says, “Okay, I think that’s it, but I left written instructions up in the tower. Looks like we’re going to have one doodle of a light-show tonight, and you’ll have the best seat in the house.”

He gives Brook a two-fingered salute, “Skinny Chet out!” He runs over to his own park ranger truck, flicks on its lights and engines, and starts to back out and away. As the vehicle sweep around past Brook’s, Chet slows and rolls down his windows, “Oh, almost forgot to ask if you had any questions, kid? If so, make it snappy. I don’t want to driving when the rain-dance starts to really boogey.”

Brook: Of course skinny Chet has to be here. Just has to. Brook shuts the truck off and gives the man a deadpan look and several nods before he races to his truck and then proceeds to annoy the boy more. “If you see my mother, tell her I’ll have her coffee ready when she gets home. Now get!” Brook waves the white boy down the road, walking around the back of his truck and inside. He’s at least right about one thing. Brook sits down by the radio and starts his homework after a quick change. He’ll get this all done as fast as possible and then enjoy the storm. Maybe even call the number. Definitely call the number.

GM: True to Chet’s word, the tower has vanilla ice cream, quick if copious notes on the rangers’ overnight trail surveillance, and lots of radio chatter between his mother and the other NPS staff. There’s also a voice message, if the blinking light on the radio station’s answering machine is accurate.

Even as Brook pulls out his books, homework sheets, and other academic paraphernalia, the pegged maps, NPS notes, and radio chatter pick at his ears. Although most of the codes and map markings would be indecipherable to a layman, Brook grew up inside Red Aspen, and he cannot help but put together several pieces of information.

As Chet said, Mary is leading the full continent of local park rangers in a manhunt through the local park trails. Or, as Brook discovers likely to his chagrin, Marshal Schofeld is leading it from another, no doubt warmer and drier, location outside Kaniksu’s trails.

Brook: Brook doesn’t give the ice cream much of a look as he starts a small fire in the wood stove and slaps a pot of water there to boil for dinner. Sugar means highs and lows, and he can’t afford that right now. Instead, he starts to look over the trail notes as he gets his things out and listens to the fuckery happening down below. Something to frustrate his mother to no end, no doubt. That pompous ass of a man doesn’t even let the kid who found the clue come and help investigate it? Dropping his books on the desk, he takes a moment to read over Chet’s notes about the trail search, seeing if there are any hints to this sicko’s location.

GM: After a brief investigation interrupted by the pot’s boiling water, Brook learns that there’s been no sighting of the escaped asylum patient–at least none since the ones he found inside the outhouse, or whatever was inside the abandoned farmhouse. The answering machine continues to pulse red. His spread out, yet otherwise untouched, homework does not blink or flash, but still awaits him.

Just as Danny said and as Brook has come to expect, Mr. Epstein has assigned a bunch of geometry problems to solve. Ms. Vosburg may have been a hormone-a-phobe who carried a loaded gun during her lectures, but at least Brook’s freshman algebra teacher didn’t assign so much homework.

Then there’s World History & Literature. Ms. LeBaron’s work is a bit more vague. Technically, all he has to do before tomorrow is turn in a one-page paper summarizing his assigned culture, the book or books he’s currently researching, and a rough plan on how he plans on working with his class project’s partner, which for him, is evidently Leanne Byers. That said, Danny’s notes suggest there may be a pop quiz on the Rome notes. That, and there’s the actual research for the project he’s hardly begun. He only made it through the foreword before crashing in the library, after all.

Brook: Ugh.

With everything going on, the young ranger hopes for a strike of lightning to hit the school tonight, though it’s probably too much to hope for. After dumping a box of macaroni in the boiling water, he returns to the desk to sift through his homework, nodding lightly and looking over everything. Ms. LeBaron’s seems like the easiest to get through, as Hazel–or rather, Ms. Bauman now he guesses–worked her magic just the other day to give him the old information packed book that still rests in his bag. Before he starts everything, the blinking gets to him and he picks up the receiver, tapping the button to hear who’s called and what they want.

GM: “You have, four, messages,” announces the stilted automated voice of the message machine. “Message one.”

What follows is a juvenile, curse word-filled rant about how Brook kills baby deer and bunnies and how he should burn in hell with Hitler, because he and the rangers and hunters are guilty of animal genocide.

Brook: Brook grins and saves the message. He has a feeling when this girl comes to spray paint the tower he’ll have her making threats on the answering machine. Next.

GM: After a few beeps and prompts by the answering machine, it saves the first and plays the next. “Uhm, do I… press… or wait…” comes a tentative female voice. “Wait, there was a beep already… oh crap…” The message cuts off with a surety the voice lacked. It takes Brook a few moments to realize the unidentified voice belongs to Leanne Byers, his fellow classmate.

Brook: Brook sits up a little, chuckling at the voice, and smiling ear to ear when he realizes it’s Leanne. He hopes she’s called again and deletes the message, moving on to the next.

GM: The next message’s voice he immediately recognizes: June Pohlman. She sounds upset, maybe a little flustered or like she’s been practicing what to say and finally got the nerve to call and was then forced to leave a message: “Brook, it’s June… you need to do… what you know you should. What you can. It’s past time. Stop hanging back. We shouldn’t have to wait to get over… whatever it is you’ve been waiting for.”

Brook: Brook listens and can feel the look on his face before the emotions hit him in full force. Disgust, grime, betrayal. is this girl serious? No. Oooohh, no. Cute as she is, this isn’t kosher. This is a radio station. Brook stands up and grabs and slaps down his sticker and sharpie-decorated personal mixtape machine, the recorder. He quickly puts in a blank tape and hits ‘record’ before pressing to replay the message. After he gets it all on tape, and makes sure it’s on tape, he deletes it and moves on. His mood’s moved from ‘fine’ to ‘pissy’ for what feels like will be the rest of the night.

GM: The answering machine, if jealous, does not convey it as it announces and then plays ‘Message Four’: “Hi, Brook, or radio station person who I hope gives this message to Brook. That’s Brook Barnes by the way. This is Leanne Byers. I’m in Brook’s classes, or well Mrs. LeBaron’s. We’re together. Partners. On the class project. For Mrs. LeBaron’s class.”

There’s a muffle, maybe a crinkle of paper, before the voice begins again. “So we’re supposed to work together. On the project. And like there’s a paper. And presentation, uhm, I think. And we have to like do a little paper, just one page by tomorrow, but you, or Brook see, like, wasn’t in class today.”

“And so I, like, got your number from the radio station broadcast, and was, like, uhm, hoping you could call me back. Or maybe, like, whoever gets this message can give it to Brook, and he can call me back. Yeah, uh, that’s what I mean. Meant. So, right, this is Leanne Byers, and I’m trying to reach Brook. Brook Barnes. For a class project, paper for tomorrow. My number is 208-344-130-” The message cuts off before she can give her final digit.

Brook: Brook’s mood slowly lifts hearing the awkward fumbling. He wonders if Leanne has written this all down on a piece of paper or she’s just steeled herself. Until he hears that crinkle of paper, of course. As it comes up, the boy snaps out of his fugue and jots down the number, the last digit gone. Well, there’s only one way to fix this. Grinning now, the teen runs back downstairs and finishes up his pot of dinner, shoveling his face with food as he rushes around trying to find the Witiko Falls Phone book. Byers. Easy to look up when he’s got the first bit of the number.

GM: Being such a small town in an equally remote and rural county, Witiko Falls lacks its own phone book, but the white pages of the county phone book have what Brook seeks. It takes him a little digging, though, as Byers is a common enough surname in the region, and Brook struggles to pick the right one, given that adults’ rather than minors’ given names are listed. Fortunately, the fact that he has all but the last digit of Leanne’s phone number makes the process not too onerous or tricky.

Phone_Book.jpg

208-344-1306

Byers, Arlie & Stella…………………..1 Shoney Pond Road

Brook: Brook is done eating by the time he finds the number and writes the last digit, as well as her parents’ names. The address is something he can remember easily. Looking at the clock, he knows it’s past midnight, but he has one surefire way of getting her to call. Brook hops up to the radio desk, stops the filler music, and flicks on the microphone. It’s time to calm down. The teen puts on his smooth radio voice as he announces,

“Good evening folks. I’m sure you all feel the electricity in the air, but I’m still here up in my tower. Now I warn you, tonight’s going to be quiet from me. On top of being your friendly neighborhood disk jockey and park ranger cadet, I’m still a student down at our little high school. Drown ’em deep and all that. I got work to do tonight.”

“So everyone remember to batten down the hatches. Don’t let strangers in. And if you’re one of the lovely people who tried to give me a call today, please ring me if you’re still awake. Especially my friend who likes black licorice. You know who you are. You all have a good night. A safe night.”

GM: The line starts to instantly light up with calls. However, likely to Brook’s dismay, the first is a caller who simply screams “DROWN ’EM DEEEEEEEP!”

The second caller is also male, but not so readily dismissed. “Hello, radio-guy?”

Brook: Brook puts his homework down and starts working on things as he answers the phone. The first call makes him reflexively hang up out of surprise, and he feels a bit bad about it until the next call comes up. He puts on music and stops broadcasting. "Name’s Brook, friend. How can I help you?

GM: “You’re the one who made the announcement about the crazy guy, the one with the hook? The psycho on the loose?”

Brook: “Dunno about the hook. He was missing one hand. Why, do you have information?”

GM: “Yeah,” comes the voice, then a pause with noise, maybe mumbled words, indecipherable in the background. “We’re part of the astronomy club and were out tonight, and we think we found him.”

As Brook listens closely, he can hear the caller is clearly pinching his nose, a crude and tell-tale way to disguise his voice. The background sounds further solidify the radio-jockey’s hunch that it’s a crank call.

Brook: “The astronomy club meeting when it’s about to storm, huh? Word of advice, don’t try this with the cops. It becomes a crime then. Keep your doors locked.” Brook hangs up, going back to his homework.

GM: The caller tries to yell his answer, “He’s in Ur-an–” but is cut short, and off–the–air regardless.

As Brook pulls out the book provided to him by the Chimera’s new librarian, his hands are once again drawn to the leather cover and its tooled repeating patterns, dimples, and protrusions. A dirty thought emerges in his brain, wondering if the nipples of the biker’s old lady would feel similar… and the inescapable image of her pendulous breast flashes in his mind, just as she flashed him less than an hour ago. No one else is in the tower to see if he lingers with that thought or immediately dives into his work. Either way, by the time the teen finds his place in the hand-cut, hand–blocked printed book titled I Have Heard the Pallid Colour of Howling in the Labyrinth, he begins reading the first letter from the Centurion Germanicus to Legate Caius Estulitius Incitatus:

_ [S]alve Legate!
 [A]s per your command, I commit to post this report of recent events along the frontier wall. The wall contains this branch of the Empire yet, but at no small price I fear. The savage tribes of Caledonia still harry and raid the border, despite the outrageous sums which are paid regularly to their kings and chieftains. At the risk of challenging the wisdom of you and your ancestors, I would submit that the Imperium cease its payments to leaders who have no control of their subjects in the first place!_

[I]nstead of this approach, I would recommend a more effective strategy based upon information l have collected in the years since l took up this post. I have learned a little of the tribal enmities and power struggles which exist in Caledonia and feel certain that such situations may eventually be exploited to keep this frontier intact.
 [T]hrough some native informants I have learned that Caledonia is inhabited not only by the Goidelic tribes of the Celtae, with which we are already familiar, but by another race, wholly separate and not necessarily friendly to the Celtae.

[E]ver since divine Hadrian constructed the great wall which runs the length of the border, the Imperium has been plagued by reports of fierce and savage warriors, naked and covered from head to toe with blue tattoos, who seem to appear from nowhere and often succeed in dragging our valiant boys from the ramparts of the wall with grappling hooks, making a feast of their flesh before the horrified eyes of their comrades.

[T]hese Picti, so named for their painted aspect, hold the northwestern regions of Caledonia, from which they send forth raiding parties to harry the Gaels (as the Goidelic tribes are called) as well as Roman strongholds. I propose to arm these Picti against the Gaels and cultivate an even greater hatred between these two peoples.

[T]o this end, I have invited Brennus, the Pictish high king, to parley at Eboracum. There I will propose that he ally with Rome against the Gaels. If they can be kept at each others’ throats, then they will have no men or energy to spare for costly engagements along the wall, and the rest of Britannia can remain secure within the Pax Romana.

–[T]itus Germanicus, Centurion, CVIIIth Cohort

The second translated letter begins immediately thereafter:

_[S]alve, Legate! 
[I] regret to report that the parley at Eboracum was inconclusive. King Brennus of the Pictis_, though his manner was reserved and noncommittal (after the fashion of most barbarian rulers, or so I’ve found), nonetheless seemed to find favor with my proposal. Unfortunately I have completely underestimated the extent of the anarchy which prevails beyond the wall. Any deal which this savage can make with us is nor likely to be honored by the Pictish tribes who supposedly owe him allegiance.

[S]trangely enough, I was to learn this from Brennus himself, who speaks with complete candor about the sorry state of his kingdom. The man is an interesting study; there is a quiet nobility even in the sloping brow, broad nostrils and heavy beardless jaw. He stands scarcely as high as my shoulder, weighing in at less than half my weight, but is as lithe and sinewy as a panther. Clad only in a breechcloth and those swirling blue tattoos, armed only with an un-adorned iron-tipped short spear and a simple dagger of Celtic make, he strides among the assembled Roman might of Eboracum as if he had a century of his own at his heels.

[T]hough he carries himself with all the self-possession of a civilized monarch, he refers to his people only in a detached, sad sort of way; I surmised that the ruling families of Pictdom had held power for so long that they had become insulated, cut off from the rank and file of their subjects. I also suspect some degree of inbreeding among the rulers, also common with savage aristocracies.

[N]early all these preliminary speculations were overturned when I had time to observe Brennus interacting with his retinue. Some half-dozen Pictish warriors accompanied him to Eboracum as part of his personal guard. They are short, shorter even than Brennus himself, and covered with similar tattoos. There most resemblance ends; while their king exudes a savage nobility, these are gross and debased specimens, their spines curved, their speech guttural, their skin unwholesome, scaly and diseased.

[“Y]ou mark the sorry state of my people,” Brennus told me, “but know this, Roman: These men are the finest that l have at hand. Their bodies are twisted by the evil that cloaks my land, but their spirits are as yet untainted. I know that their hearts are loyal to me, and the blood which flows within is that of the true white howlers, not–” and here Brennus stopped, seemingly consumed with a rage which was held in check only by his iron will. He made as if to leave, stopped, spoke to me with his back turned. “Would you court us as allies, Roman? Would you lend us your spears against the Gaels? Then select your closest men and have them mount up! You shall meet those whom you would fight beside! When you are ready, I shall take you to the heart of Pictdom!”

[A]nd there it is, Legate. This will of course be my last missive for some while, but my next communication should be of the best tidings; soon we shall drive the Celtae into the sea and redraw the Roman border to encompass all of Caledonia!

–[T]itus Germanicus, Centurion, CVIIIth Cohort

The translated missives are then broken by the editor’s note which explain that the above articles are the only two complete letters of Germanicus.

The editor goes on to posit that the two letters were never posted to Rome, and equally unlikely to have been carried by the centurion into Pictlands. Instead, the editor hypothesizes that they were somehow preserved at Eboracum and later retrieved by one Nennius or some unnamed compiler. This theory is corroborated, the editor notes, by the difference in the condition between and the narrative that follows. While the first two letters had been copied into he manuscript proper (with the illuminated initial letter of each paragraph left unfinished), the following narrative is in Germanicus’ own hand, and likely intended for later inclusion as an appendix.

What follows, the editor notes, may have indeed begun as a series of letters to Incitatus, but their decayed and fragmentary states leaves the question unanswered. More likely, Brook and the editor alike conclude, is that these fragments comprise Germanicus’ own personal journal or notes, from which he intended to write his report back to Rome upon his triumphant return.

…Leaving Eboracum, we passed the ruins of the Tower of Trajan. Strange glances passed between Brennus and his men, and there was furtive murmuring. Later, a Cymric scout in our party who knew a Iittle of the Pictish tongue related that Brennus’ men had told him accusatorily, “you have called them, and they shall remember.”

[…]

The countryside is beautiful in its Spartan starkness. Vast rolling fields of heather stretch beneath the gray skies; the hills roll gently in some places, in others they jut at odd angles with treacherously bare rock. I asked Brennus […] “[…] but think not that the land was always as you see it now. When my people first came here, we walked, for the seas had not yet divided the land. The earth was pulling back her mantle of ice, and we hunted the reindeer, bison and mammoth across the plains. Gawk not, Roman! For mine is an old people, and our memories stretch back farther than you can even imagine!”

“When the oceans rose, we were driven back into the hills, and lush forests covered much of the countryside. The lion flourished here, as well as the red deer, wild boar, and many other animals, who became extinct as the wilderness died.”

[…]

The squalor of these folk is deplorable. They have no proper dwellings, but live mostly in earthen mounds. I have even been told that there are those in the highlands who make their homes in caves and burrows like common animals.

_ There are some wooden and stone forts where Brennus allows us to make camp and stable our horses. Within the forts one sees bronze and iron tools and weapons, most of them obviously of Goidelic origin. Some, however, I guess to be products of Pictish craft; they are crudely worked, and clumsily decorated with coiling images of fanciful beasts. Away from the forts, even these pitiful items are nowhere to be seen; the majority of Brennus’ subjects eke out their barren existence with nothing more than stone and wooden implements, living no better than troglodytes._

[…]

Here the translated text ends once more and the editor interjects again. Before Brook’s eyes can analyze or glaze over those paragraphs, the phone rings. Looking up, Brook sees that it is 1:36 am.

Brook: Some things stick in Brook’s mind. What evil was the Pictish king talking about? What did he mean by ‘still white howlers’? Why were the Picts so monstrous-sounding? It’s all a buzz of activity in his head, a mystery pulling him in as he reads and reads and reads. Until the phone jolts him awake. It’s getting later. He’s yet to start his assignment, past the reading. But he still picks up the phone rather quickly. “Hello, Red Aspen station.”

GM: The voice on the other end is a mere whisper, “Hello? Brook?”

“It’s Leanne,” comes the whisper, even quieter. Brook can picture the girl cupping the receiver to her lips.

Brook: Brook immediately sits up, feeling her whisper and shivering a little. It’s a little too nice to have a girl whispering in his ear, and his voice breaks a little as he whispers back. “Leanne! I–hey. Um… hey. Sorry I missed your call. I didn’t wanna call back, was so late. I thought you’d be sleeping.”

GM: There’s a pause and for a moment, the adolescent boy thinks the yet–to–break storm has finally decides to break and crash the phone line. Or worse, she’s hung up on him. Neither proves to be the case, however, as Leanne’s voice comes crackling through. “I… couldn’t sleep. Like you,” she says, continuing to whisper.

Brook: Brook can feel his heart scrape against the inside of his ribs on its way up his throat during the silence, like he’s waiting for something awful. It drops back into place when the opposite happens. Like him? He doesn’t know how much Leanne knows about him, but he frowns. “I’m sorry. I know how much it sucks to be awake the next day. I, um… I’m just doing homework. Our project.”

GM: Another pause. “Yeah, um, the project. Right. What do you have?”

Brook: “Lots. The librarian Haz—Ms. Bauman found me a great book. We can read it together,” he whispers, an image of the tall pair shoulder to shoulder reading a book every day coming to mind.

GM: “That sounds great!” her voice raises brightly, altogether forgetting its earlier whisper. “The librarian got me the book or something too. It has pictures. And, like, words too,” she quickly adds. There’s another pause. “I’m… I’m can’t, uh, I’m not sure I understand it though. It’s, like weird. Like old time talk.” She laughs a little self-consciously. “Which I guess makes sense. It’s, like, a history class, after all.” She pauses again, perhaps realizing she’s been rambling.

Brook: Brook jumps a little when she suddenly raises her voice, but as rambling as she is, he can’t help but feel happy she’s enjoying talking with him. Though there’s just one thing. What if her parents catch her talking to a boy at one o’clock in the morning?

“We can figure it out. We’ll be working on this together. And hey, if we have issues, we can always go to the person who gave us the books right? Though, Leanne, you were whispering before. Aren’t your parents sleeping?”

GM: “Yeah!” Leanne says excitedly, then backtracks as seems to realize she’s given only one answer to multiple questions. Her whisper returns, “I mean, like, working together would be what the teacher wants us, to like, do. Together. Will you be at school tomorrow? Were you si–”

The connection becomes a screeching series of beeps and static.
The dial-up naturally fails given the active use of the line, and it is only a few seconds before the ear-drilling sound halts and both Brook and Leanne hear another different form of yelling:

“Leanne!!! What the hell you doing up?!”

Brook hears his fellow sophomore almost drop the phone as she stammers, not into the phone, but away from it. “S-sorr-y, Daddy!”

Brook: Brook nearly jumps out of his skin once again at the sound of the dial-up noise. He sighs away from the receiver and wonders if it’s the storm causing interference before… ‘Daddy.’

GM: “Get the off the damned line, girl!” her father yells, “And go to bed–no, wait, get me a beer if you’re awake!”

“O-okay, Daddy!” Leanne yells back, still flustered, before she whispers into the phone and nearly trips over her words, “Gotta go, thanks, see you ’morrow, bye, thanks.”

Brook: Listening closely, he already doesn’t like this asshole, and his eyes narrow at nothing as he hears the man yell and order Leanne around, who’s all but tripping over herself to please him. He wonders if she has bruises. But then again, he’s never had a father, maybe this is just how you’re supposed to act around one.

“Good night, Leanne,” he manages before the line goes dead. It pisses him off, but at least they can see each other again tomorrow. Buckling down, the boy starts to write the preliminary paper, detailing the name of the book he has from the library, and how he and Leanne are planning on working closely, pooling resources as he wants to put it. It’s only a page, he knows he can knock it out fast and start on that math. Then he can take a look at that bill in his pocket.

GM: The one-page paper is easily vanquished. As Brook looks up at the clock clicking over to 2 AM, he notices that the answering machine has a new message, likely one left while he was on the phone with Leanne. Meanwhile, the first rumble of thunder shakes the sky.

Brook: Brook feels the thunder crackle, and smiles, hoping that he can finish his math before it really starts. Until he sees the light. Sighing, he picks the phone up and presses the button to play the message, holding the phone to his ear as he brings out the math.

GM: “You have, two, messages,” announces the stilted automated voice of the message machine.

The first message, left at 1:39 am, comes from one Jason Tutweiler, requesting Metallica’s Until It Sleeps. “It helps me resist the aliens when they tell me to hurt people,” he explains before ending his message.

The second message, allegedly left at 1.61 am, is much shorter: “Agent Barnes, do the math.” As soon as Brook hears the message, he glances up to see the clock click to 2:01 AM.

Then, everything goes blinding white, then black.

Hudson: A Golden Star


Candy_Wrapper.jpg

Thursday night, 9 October 1998

GM: The candy wrapper falls to the floor. Its descent is nearly as slow and and dull as the past four hours.

Outside the Britter’s boathouse, storm–whipped lake slaps the bottom of the floorboards. The windowless walls creak, while the roof pings and patters with rain. Thunder rattles the entire frame and shakes the hanging rowboats, causing them to sway on their winched chains.

Despite the violent weather outside, the climate inside the boathouse is beyond placid–it’s phlegmatic. Deputy Lowder has stopped recounting all the nails in the floorboards. Her sheriff county department peer–the young brown-haired Deputy Hensler–has abandoned his game of solitaire. His cards sit atop a bait bucket, his discarded jokers listing lazily over his makeshift card-table’s edge.

Their doldrum is finally broken by a knock on the door. Both cops jolt, their hands dipping to their sidearms, only to begrudgingly relax when they realize it is the Marshall’s partner, Deputy Cassidy Porter.

Cassidy_Porter.jpg

Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, the young African-American woman likes to say–but never says she likes–that she fits in Idaho as well as a raisin in a blizzard. Tonight, as she opens the triple-locked work closet full of cow chum and motor fuel with her right hand holding the corded landline, she looks over the three white law enforcement officers. Dressed in her Marshal-issued kevlar vest and uniform, her engagement ring glitters in the dark threshold as she regards her superior. “Boss,” she says, “It’s Max. Says they got lost. Tried to call, but… you know, reception. He and Curtis are at some wig-wham or something. Like a corner store.”

“Coffee Wigwam,” Lowder clarifies, seemingly happy to be of use, or simply thankful to be doing something. “It’s a shop on the Reserve. You want me to give them directions?” she asks, rising.

Hudson, however, is distracted by someone else. His ‘little man’. He’s been increasingly bothering the Marshal over these past hours–or more precisely, he hasn’t–and that’s what’s bothering the lawman. Normally, his hackles would be going haywire, his guts doing a tap dance on his spine. But there’s been nothing.

Hudson’s disquieting musings are interrupted by static-y chatter coming trough the landline in Cassidy’s hand. After crooking her neck to listen to the stretched taut phone, she tells her Bostonian partner to “Hold up,” then turns back to Hudson and the county deputies that await his decision. “Boss, Max says they picked up the bikes from Coeur d’Alene, just like you asked, and that Lt… Burrell, I mean, Bullard, says…”

She leans back into the phone, “What’d he say again?” After Hodges presumably repeats the message, she immediately relays with an arched eyebrow. “O-gauge or no gauge.” She shrugs. “It’s what he said.” She then adds, “Oh, Lt. Bullard threw in a third bike.”

Deputies Lowder and Hensler give the Marshals a curious look before the former reiterates her prior offer. “You want me to give them directions? With the storm, they’re liable to get lost. Again.”

Hudson: The rain pounds as Hudson’s teeth crunch down on the candy bar. Chocolate. Peanuts. Caramel. Nougat. That’s what the sweet and chewy interior is. He’d dispensed that bit of trivia to Lowder and Hensler (Porter already knew what it was) for pure lack of absolutely anything else to do. Nougat is actually a type of candy in its own right, made from whipped egg whites, roasted nuts, a sweetener like sugar or honey, and optionally candied fruit. The nougat that makes up a Baby Ruth’s chewy interior consists of milk, egg whites, chocolate, and various artificial sweeteners like like corn syrup. The fat fed savors the third candy bar he’s ‘smoked’ this evening like the cigarettes he’s long since given up, to only dubiously improved health benefits. For himself, at least.

Didn’t switch for me, he thinks, but the thought is fleeting and soon discarded, like the red-lettered candy wrapper that slowly drifts to the floor. Other matters weigh on the Marshal’s mind as his tongue licks at the bits of caramel stuck to his teeth.

Mrs. Britter is holed up in one of the expansive farm’s many dairy sheds, well out of Moe’s notice. She’s got her husband and three farmhands protecting her with shotguns, just in case Hudson is wrong. The Britters’ adoptive daughter Casie Saunders is spending the night at a friend’s house, just in case Hudson is also wrong about four guns being enough. The fat fed would’ve felt even better sending away the entire family, but he left that reservation unvoiced. The proud farmer was already unhappy at the notion he couldn’t protect his own, never mind fleeing his land and leaving its defense to outsiders.

So Hudson did the next-best thing, checking in periodically over the police radio he’d given the man. He’s checked in just as regularly with the Park Rangers who are sweeping the Kaniksu’s trail paths, in case Moses doubles back to his old haunts. Stan Epstein is going about his normal routine as if nothing has happened, save for the radio he’s also carrying. The deputized geometry teacher looks like he’s going to be Moe’s next target—and Hudson’s potential ace in the hole in case things are a wash tonight at the Britters’. It’s brave of Epstein to volunteer to be used as bait, and levelheaded of him to be content sitting at home twiddling his thumbs (if Moe decides someone under constant police guard is an undesirable target, after all, it’s anyone’s guess who the psychotic war hero will go after next). Every angle of the pentagon has its part to play, as he told young Mr. Barnes. Hudson has to admit he likes the man.

Meanwhile, the earlier farmhouse he and the others cased sits undisturbed, Moses’ map left just where it was in the fireplace. Hudson’s little man had mused the fugitive might go back for it. Lacking sufficient manpower to post a full guard in wait at the farmhouse, Hudson had considered rigging the fireplace with a trap to douse Moses in red paint—it sure would give the lawmen an easy trail to follow—but called that off. Moses has been seemingly content to live off the land so far (lunches stolen from schoolchildren notwithstanding), and there was too great a risk he might break into a house to use the shower and steal some new clothes. God help any residents he found inside. In lieu of a paint trap, a surreptitiously placed camera is being monitored by Ferg the dispatcher. That’ll at least give them the heads up on his present location.

As for Hudson himself, he and his men—actually, his man and his women, until his other two subordinates arrive—are patiently waiting at ground zero. Moses left copious and worryingly coherent (for a man who paints pentagrams in his own shit) notes on his targets. ‘Scheduled’ Mrs. Britter for today. Drew a sketch of her property’s boathouse. So that’s where the Marshal and his deputies are waiting. Hudson has planned for the night meticulously. Laid contingencies for every possible action he can think that his quarry might take. The whole thing looks like it’ll be wrapped up like a Christmas present. Easy peasy.

That’s what makes his little man lead his guts, candy-gorged paunches of bulk that they are, on an acutely painful tap dance over his spine. Its motions only grow more ersatz and its ponderous steps even heavier as the hours tick by and there’s not a sign of Moses. Not here. Not from the Britters. Not from the Park Rangers. Not from Ferg. Not even from Stan Epstein.

Too easy.

His little man grumbles.

_It’s never easy._

Hudson’s tongue works out a lone peanut stuck in the back of his molars. His teeth crunch down over the salted nut as he muses,

That’s the problem with trying to predict madmen. They’re not predictable.

Lowder’s twice-asked question finally stirs the fat lawman from his thoughts. The Wigwam isn’t far. Even with the poor weather it’s a stretch to imagine Max and Curtis getting lost.

“Yes, I would. And yes, they are,” he answers.

The fact is, ‘stretch’ doesn’t even begin to describe the things Hudson’s seen in this town. The mad detours on the roads to get here. The animal attacks. The anisocoria in so many eyes. The batteries in everything draining so fast. The awful sleep he’s gotten. The Britters lobotomizing their cows. Actually, no, that one makes some sense with how aggressive the animals all seem to be. A determined enough cow could hurt someone pretty bad. Still…

“It’s a strange town, Joe,” Hudson had declared over a phone call while snacking on a Captain Crunch bar. “The more of it I see, the stranger it feels—like leftover bits of egg-flavored gummy, stuck in the back of your gums. Stuck there, fermenting, a strange and subtle taste that only gets stranger the longer it’s there, and the more you think on it.”

Then there are the locals. They have their own ways of doing things and understand the town better than he does. Frankly, Hudson isn’t about to tell them no. Outsiders seem to get lukewarm enough receptions as it is, never mind blustering ones who get in the way.

He nods as Porter gets the name right. “Bullard,” he repeats. “Old friend of mine from police academy. Doing us a real favor with those motorbikes.” Under the present circumstances, Hudson doesn’t quite smile at the reference to their shared hobby, but the tight outline of one traces his lips all the same. Back in the old days, Joe likes to say, men had hobbies, not like the hustle and bustle and oft-repeated mantra of “I’m busy” like one sees now.

Taking in his subordinates’ curious looks, the Marshal elaborates, “Little insurance on our part, if Moe doubles back to the Kaniksu. At my weight I’m liable to have a heart attack if we have to chase him through any trails too narrow for cars.”

There’s another tight outline of a not-quite smile. “If he’s smart–which he is, in his own demented way–that’s where he’ll run.”

Of course, where Moses might run is worth precisely jack-all next to where he is right now. It’s been four hours. Where the hell is he? As Hudson watches Lowder pick up the phone, he reaches into his jacket’s pocket and pulls out his police radio. No sign of their quarry is all the more reason to check in with the others.

“Schofeld to Red Aspen. Come in, Red Aspen.”

GM: Silence is his only reply.

Dead silence.

Hazel: Attila Awakens


Flashlight.png

Thursday night, 9 October 1998

Hazel: Hazel waves goodbye as the headlights from her mother’s SUV recede into the dark. They waited a while before Lydia started the car, and the ride home took a little while longer. Hazel is no longer a disheveled mess, but her heart is still raw and sore. She doesn’t want to face a vampire tonight. She could have still put it off. Asked if she could go back to the hotel with her mom, who would’ve been of less mind to say no. They could’ve had dinner again, maybe watched a movie, talked and comforted one another long into the night. She could’ve gone to sleep in a warm and soft bed, far away from the monster stalking her house. Hazel wanted that so badly. She could’ve gone after him tomorrow, during the day. She knows his place of refuge.

But no. That is no alternative. He has guardians to watch him during his sleep, and Hazel’s sure that finding his daytime sanctuary and overcoming its defenses will be a task of its own. She may well be able to meet such a task–but it’s a battle on his terms. The Sweeney house is familiar turf. She’s got him coming here, likely alone, deluded into believing she will be easy prey. The time is ripe for her to set a bear trap. She’s not going to throw away the assembly kit away at the last moment. It’s time to end this, for good or ill.

Hazel tries the front door she clearly remembers locking–and will not be in the least surprised to find her key unnecessary.

GM: With the passing of her mother’s vehicle, it is dark outside. Evening is dead. Twilight is passed. Night falls all around Hazel. Darkness reigns, and as her hand tries the door that then swings open unlocked, she sees that its princedom extends to her home.

Hazel: She flips on the lights in spite of her mounting anxiety. It’s still early in the evening. He’ll want to come later at night, when everyone in the neighborhood has gone to sleep–her included–and there are fewer potential witnesses. He will. When it’s more convenient, for so many reasons.

…won’t he?

GM: The light switch clicks. But darkness remains. It is then that she notices it, the entire street is black.

Hazel: No. No, it’s…

GM: No light shines.

Hazel: She tries the light attached to her keyring. It’s not connected to, to…

GM: The house creaks. The house smells. A droning fills the air. The pen-light clicks on, shedding its feeble blue radiance over the cluttered blackness. In the darkness, the furniture looms, alien and menacing. She bumps into the living room sofa. It has been moved. The buzzing continues.

Hazel: A new wave of anxiety rises in her chest. She swallows it like a tall glass of foul-smelling medicine as she cranes her neck to examine her surroundings.

No. I’ve… I’ve kept my wits. I’m not going to let him out-psyche me. This is just a game, a psychological trick, like I played on him. She steadies her breathing. Power over animals and vermin… what would I do if I wanted to scare someone in their own home?

She thinks for a moment. I’d kill an animal. Or a person. Leave its corpse to the flies. Leave it in a familiar place and setting to them, violate the sanctity of their… She takes a deep breath. It’s logical for him to wait. And to try to unnerve me. I’m not going to let him.

GM: A dark shadow circles through her light. Tiny and black. Buzzing.

Hazel: She swivels the light. Looking for the source of the flies. What’s attracted them here.

GM: She smells it. Something foul, something sweet. She knows it is in the kitchen, her legs bumping and brushing against things again and again as her nemesis has moved everything just a few inches off. The flies buzz and drone. There are not many of them, but enough to make the air itch. One scrapes her cheek. Another drones and drops on her head.

Hazel: Hazel swats at the passing insects. Her eyes briefly fall out of focus as she follows the dot-like shadow flitting across the light. Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. But it’s no good. The keychain’s light is too dim to make anything out. The familiar layout of the house, too off-kilter. Resigned, she makes her way to the kitchen–and the source of whatever ‘present’ her nemesis has left.

If he isn’t there himself.

GM: Fumbling in the dark, Hazel bangs into the fridge door, causing it to rock hard against its hinges. Sweat trickles down her spine as she realizes that her fridge has been left open, allowing the food therein to start to putrefy. Flies land on the delivery pizza box, scratching and scuttling to get inside.

But they have other feasts more available. Hazel’s lip curls in disgust as the sickly-sweet stench intensifies. One hand on her key light, the other traces the edge of the round kitchen table to prevent further bumps and bruises. That’s when her fingers brush against something on the table, scattering a cloud of angry flies.

Hazel: The key light’s blue glow shines towards it.

GM: For all her resolve, the feeble light shakes. Her heart hammers deafeningly as her body secretes fear hormones into her brain and muscles. Knowledge is power, but power has a price–and knowing she is being hunted by a centuries-old terror with mastery over vermin, inhuman strength, and worse starts to burrow cracks in her psyche. Darkness inspires a primal terror–and now, Hazel knows why. And it is dark. Very, very dark.

But she forces the light to move. She forces herself to see. Trembling, the blue glow crawls over a man’s glove situated in the midst’s of the table’s mail. But the glove is not empty. Flesh. Bone. Maggots. Terror. The pale, slimy necrophagic vermin spill out of the glove, and one by one, spell out a message:

RIGHT BEHIND YOU

Hazel: A hand. That’s. That’s someone’s hand.

Bile rises in her throat—but has no chance to come out before she blindly dashes from the kitchen, her heart hammering in uncanny synchrony with her feet against the floor.

GM: The back screen door shrieks, then slams shut after her. The air is cold and cannot be sucked down swiftly enough.

Hazel: Sweat trickles down Hazel’s back as she gulps down the night air. Her eyes desperately cut across the umbral gloom in search of light. Any light. Even awful old Mrs. Worwood’s. She could kiss that shriveled crone right now, just to see light.

GM: All of Red Louse Lane seems engulfed in darkness. But then she spots the tiny flicker of flame in the old hag’s house. Candles. Wavering pinpricks of hope and sanctuary.

Hazel: Hazel can taste the hot pinpricks of bile in her throat, but eventually, it subsides. So. Someone’s cut the power. It’s not just her. And she’s not alone. She’d been formulating a plan to get Mrs. Worwood out of her house–inconvenient to have a potential witness nearby–but right now, she’s glad just to know there’s someone else out there. And besides, it is pitch dark.

Well. She’s not headed back inside the house, not yet. Not with… that thing… but she’s not going to remain idle, either. The lack of lighting in the other houses is a boon. Mrs. Worwood won’t be able to see what she’s up to. She should have done this the moment the lights didn’t work, anyways.

Hazel walks off behind the house. She hears no sound except for her light shoes pressing against the freshly-mowed grass. She looks up at the old oak tree. It could be a coincidence, that it’s located here, right where she needs it outside the house. But Hazel’s encountered too many coincidences for them to be coincidences.

Her gaze lowers from the wide leafy boughs, sweeping across the dark silhouette of Marilyn Sweeney’s childhood swing. It wouldn’t be much to look at, even if it were light enough to clearly make out. It’s a simple wooden plank, with two lengths of rope on each end, hanging from a sturdy branch. But you can learn a few things about someone, living in their house for a while. The Sweeneys didn’t talk about their dead child, and Hazel wouldn’t have asked, but the evidence told its own story to the town undersheriff’s daughter. How the wood was worn smooth by long hours sitting there, swinging back and forth. How the name “Marilyn” was carved onto the underside of the swing with a pen-knife, over a crudely etched heart and arrow. How the other boy’s name was furiously defaced by that same knife and a cigarette lighter. The evidence tells quite a story, indeed.

All before Hazel’s neck-hairs stood on end the one time she sat on that swing. That was Marilyn’s swing. It still is. Now that Hazel knows the full story of the girl’s death, she realizes the swing wasn’t just important to the thirteen–year–old’s life. It was where she broke up with her first and only boyfriend. It is inextricably linked to the cause of her death. And such items hold power over departed souls–or so it is said.

Hazel’s already willing to test a hypothesis about vampires. Might as well expand it to ghosts too.

She walks up to the swing, pulls it back and then pushes it forward, as if doing so for the enjoyment of a seated child. “Marilyn Sweeney, hear my voice.”

The empty swing drifts back. Hazel pushes it forward again. Just a little further, this time. “Marilyn Sweeney, hear my name.”

The swing flies off into the night. The wood lightly slaps back against Hazel’s palms. “I am Hazel Bauman, entrusted with the guardianship and care of your home by your parents.”

The swing sets off. The swing flies back. “That home is still yours, Marilyn.”

The swing flies forth, and then back. Faster. Further. A soft wind whispers at Hazel’s ears. “Marilyn Sweeney, spirit of the past, move among us. Be guided by the light of this world and visit upon us.”

Hazel has to stand to her tiptoes this time, catching the swing by her fingertips as it flies back. Perhaps it’s the moonlight shining just right against her glasses, but she swears she can briefly make out the knife-etched heart with the name “Marilyn” interposed against a dark, smudged-out spot. “Marilyn Sweeney, I bring you gifts from life into death. Be guided by the light of this world and visit upon us!”

Hazel has to jump this time to catch the swing as it roughly smacks against her hands. She gives a grunt of exertion, but her shoes have barely hit the grass before she pushes the swing off again, into the night. Is it her overactive imagination that she can hear the laughter of a child at play? “Marilyn Sweeney, spirit of the past, move among us! Be guided by the light of this world and visit upon us!”

GM: The clouds curl and wither like burning black leaves, revealing the winning gibbous moon. Its pale light shines down upon the Sweeney’s backyard, casting long moon-shadows. The air grows colder as frost creeps over the grass. As it glistens, the shadow of the swing lays vivid upon the lawn, as does the shadow of a young girl swinging upon it. The physical swing, at least to Hazel’s mortal eyes, remains eerily vacant.

Marilyn.jpg

Hazel: Hazel’s breath catches in her throat. That’s… that’s physically impossible. But her eyes don’t move. The evidence speaks for itself.

Or can… she?

“Marilyn Sweeney,” Hazel states slowly. It doesn’t seem quite appropriate to bow, but her tone and posture are deferential. “Your killer seeks to invade your home and to claim me as his next victim.”

GM: The shadow appears to reach into its dress pocket and pulls out a pocketknife. Blade in hand, her shadow-hand reaches out and begins cutting into the tree’s shadow. Bark starts to crack and sap bleeds as letters form on the old oak.

YOU SHOULD RUN

Hazel: Hazel’s already pale skin all-but blanches. Oh god. What have I done?

What was necessary, she resolves, her jaw steeling. Her voice remains level as she continues, “Marilyn, I wish to help you exact vengeance upon your killer. To bring him to justice. To make him pay for murdering you, and all his other victims.”

GM: The shadow-girl swings softly as in thought, then shakes her head vigorously. She reaches out with her shadow knife once more to start cutting into the trunk’s shadow. New slashes open up into the bark.

YOU WILL DIE

Hazel: Hazel bows her head. “This is your house, Marilyn, and if you wish me to leave, I will do as you request. I have but one question. I have spent two nights running from him already. If I do not face him, if I do not make my stand here, how am I–how are other girls like you–to be safe?”

GM: Marilyn’s shade makes a large series of slashes. A choppy heart emerges on the tree, its sap trickling down in rivulets. The shadow stands up on the shadow swing, then twirls, causing the physical plank to twirl and move so that its underside is lit by the moon. The shadow-spirit points down to her engraved initials, the heart, and the burn mark.

Hazel: “I cannot defeat him. I can only find someone to love, and so escape him,” Hazel states, half-questioning.

GM: Marilyn’s shade lingers, her hair umbral hail spooling down to the frosted ground as she hangs upside down. Where her shadow face seems to touch the grass, crystalline ice forms.

She at last pulls herself up. She places the pocketknife to her wrist and slits it. Red blood seems to materialize mid-air and drip to the ground, splashing on the frost. The shadow-girl steps off of the swing. The bloodied, frosted grass bends with two barefoot depressions. The swing and its shadow then lifts and tilts, once again exposing its engraved and defaced underside. The swing hangs mid-air askew as the shadowy preteen takes hold of the swing’s shadow and begins engraving carefully. Each cut causes more droplets of blood to patter to the ground. A spectral hiss cuts through the air. It sounds like someone gritting their teeth through great pain. Slitted words, however, begin to emerge upon the swing.

FIND HIM

More droplets and another hiss, slip, and a feminine cry that cuts to the bone. An engraved arrows appears. It points to the defaced initials and the arrow-pierced heart. The shadow hoists itself back up upon the swing.

Hazel: Hazel nods slowly in understanding. “I need to find your boyfriend. That is the key to bringing your killer to justice.”

GM: Marilyn’s shade nods. She places one umbral hand over her slit wrist. Slowly the bleeding stops.

Hazel: “Do you wish me to… bring him here, when I have found him?”

GM: Another nod.

Hazel: “Can you tell me his name? Where I should begin looking?”

GM: The black outline of the thirteen-year-old girl shakes her head and seems to bury her shadowy hands in her face. The sound of crying escapes from the slashed bark. Shadowy tears fall from her dress, leaving ghastly blue scorch marks upon the grass.

Hazel: It’s such a human motion. From something… no, some_one_, that causes her such instinctive fear. “I’m sorry, Marilyn. I’ll do everything that I can. You deserve peace.” Hazel pauses and adds, “Your parents love and remember you. They still have your photo.”

GM: The burning grass catches fire. Blue flames lick at the swing. Smoke rises in great plumes. The black vapors obscure the moon-shadows, and when they eventually rise up into the air, the swing’s shadow remains empty.

Hazel: Hazel reflexively backs away from the sight, about to stammer out some apology for her offense–but it’s simply the ghost leaving. She breathes out an all-too palpable sigh of relief.

Her relief grows all the more pronounced when she sees the familiar headlights of her dad’s patrol truck approaching. Hazel made a lot of plans for how she was going to face her nemesis. But she kept one in reserve in case she needed to abort at the last minute too. She’d called her dad during work and asked if he could drop off some items she’d left at his house–and now, with the power out, she has an all-too ready excuse to stay over again.

Yes, she thinks, at the thought of putting off the confrontation for another day. This is… for the best. She still needs to hear from Leo’s contact, too.

GM: Harvey’s truck light and engine stay on as the undersheriff half-bolts from his truck. “Hazel?!” his voice rings out.

Hazel: “I’m right here, Daddy!” she calls, relieved, as she makes her way over.

GM: Uniform-clad, and hand to his holstered firearm, Harvey runs to Hazel and throws his protective arms around her.

Hazel: The hug initially takes Hazel aback, but she’s had a lot of them with her mom recently. And to say nothing of the present circumstances… if she’s stiff, it’s only a moment before she melts into her father’s embrace.

Her dad is here. And she’s safe, for as long as she’s in his arms.

GM: “Oh, thank goodness you’re okay.”

Hazel: “I know the power’s out, but is there something else that’s wrong?”

GM: “I called your number. The line’s disconnected. Your cell too, but that’s nothing new. And then I saw the black van out front,” he says, pointing to the road.

Hazel: “It’s the power, Daddy. There’s no electricity, no running water, ‘no nothing’, as the saying goes.” Hazel freezes. “Like… one of theirs?” She doesn’t need to say who.

GM: Harvey’s big chin nods. “But it’s gone. They pulled off, no lights as soon as I pulled in.” He sighs. “I was worried they might have taken you.”

Hazel: “Did you get the license plate?” she instinctively asks.

GM: Harvey laughs. His face then grows a bit more serious as he whispers, “Theirs don’t have any.”

Hazel: “It sticks out like a sore thumb, though. The best recourse is to use different plates on each outing. Doesn’t stand out, and worthless to investigators when the plates are replaced. If they don’t act fast.”

GM: “I don’t think that’s the point,” he says. “But it doesn’t matter, you’re okay, and I was just being jumpy.”

Hazel: “Ah. That’s right. It’s good that I’m safe,” Hazel confirms. “And I would much rather have a dad who’s jumpy at the prospect of me being in trouble than one who is lethargic over it.”

Also, I was. Your instincts weren’t wrong.

GM: “Oh, and the reason I first tried calling: Lance is awake! I was planning on going to interview him.”

Hazel: Hazel is quiet for a moment upon hearing that news. “Aunt Winnie was right.”

GM: “How so?”

Hazel: “Mom took me to see him earlier today. She laid out a… compelling, logical case for why I should.” Hazel pauses, not sure how she’s supposed to act in this context. She did tell her dad she didn’t want to visit earlier. “I’m sorry, that feels almost like going behind your back.”

GM: “Actually, pumpkin,” he says, shepherding her to the still-running truck. “How about we resume this chat in the patrol vehicle. I left the motor running. It would be embarrassing if Eddie Munson jumped in and took it for a joyride.”

Hazel: “Good idea, Daddy. Give me a moment though? There’s a couple things I’d like to bring.” She smiles. “Stay guard and make sure Eddie doesn’t jump in.”

GM: “Okay,” he says, smiling.

Hazel: Hazel first reaches into his truck and pulls out one of the heavy-duty police flashlights. Those are much better than the dinky keychain light she carries around. In fact, she should keep a real illumination source in her purse. She already has a basic forensic kit there.

She still takes a short breath before she flicks on the heavy light and re-enters the house.

GM: The miniature spotlight fires a bright beam across her rearranged furniture and knickknacks. Now, regarding the already lived in house, Hazel is struck just by how many hiding places there are.

Hazel: It’s okay. Dad’s here. I can scream, he can radio backup, and Marilyn acted like no one was here… She’s still only slightly less anxious as she pushes the door open.

GM: The flies continue to drone and flit.

Hazel: But if she’s afraid to even enter the house where he’s been, how will she possibly be brave enough to face him?

She won’t be. She’s got to do this.

Not just to out-psyche him. She might be able to glean further insight into his activities from the other ‘presents’ he’s left—he’s killed someone if that hand is any indication. Who was his victim? And in any case, she needs to pack a change of clothes for her overnight stay at Dad’s.

GM: The front door creaks.

Hazel: Let’s get this over with. She pushes it open.

GM: The flashlight slams light into the living room. The beam momentarily blinds a large, mange-ridden rat. It hisses and slinks off beneath one of her couches. The light also illuminates a pair of toys left out on the bottom stair.

Hazel: Hazel tenses, as if ready for them to suddenly animate and attack her instead of rats for some debauched aristocratic court’s amusement.

GM: Both are small finely carved dolls. One is dressed like a sheriff, the other a black-haired woman. Both dolls are streaked with Hazel’s red nail polish.

Hazel: She’s calmer now. She can recognize what a good way that is to unnerve someone. Go through their personal effects and show how no area of their life is safe.

But you’ve shown me you’re not omniscient either, VV. I rarely wear nail polish, and I don’t like red as a color. You don’t know what’s important to me. Who I am. Or how much I know about you.

GM: That’s when the dolls come ‘alive’. But they don’t attack Hazel. They attack one another. They savagely begin to bite and smash each other.

Hazel: Hazel whips out the camera from her purse and rapidly snaps pictures. She’d been tempted to scoop up the dolls and inspect them as ‘evidence’. But she needs to maintain the narrative of a frightened victim, and a victim wouldn’t think to do that. She’d just want to get the hell away. Pictures are the next-best thing.

GM: The sheriff-doll eventually rips the arm off the dark-haired female, only to have the latter rip off the former’s head. The dolls then clatter to the ground, in tatters and splinters.

Hazel: It’s unnerving on an instinctive level. It shouldn’t be happening. But Hazel has… seen a lot of impossible and horrifying things today. A ghost. A severed hand. That’s just within the past hour. These are mind games, tricks to scare her with. She knows them for what they are.

She’s goddamn tired of being scared.

And besides. Seeing her real parents fight is way worse. She’ll take a physical brawl between their dolls any day of the week.

GM: The red nail polish starts to glisten and run down the dolls’ splintered bodies.

Hazel: “Are you done yet?” Hazel mutters, snapping a few last photos.

GM: The only replies are the subtle creaks of the house and the drone of flies. That, and the trembling echo of her own voice. Outside, her dad calls for her, perhaps alerted to her voice as well as the relative lack of movement from the flashlight. “Sport?”

Hazel: “I’ll be out soon, Daddy! Just got kind of caught up with… you know about my sensory processing…”

GM: “Okay,” he says, looking over his shoulder, back down Red Louse Lane.

Hazel: Hazel steps over the ruined figurines and makes her way upstairs. No doubt her nemesis has left another surprise in the bedroom. Maybe even his grandest one? Not sure. If she got really freaked by the hand, by his little creations, she’d never go upstairs, and it’d be wasted. Or maybe it’s something to really scare her if she makes it through those.

It’s no matter. If she can’t face it, she can’t face him–and she has to face him.

GM: With everything rearranged, it hardly even feels like her room anymore. There’s a pervasive feeling of violation. As her shaking hand sweeps the hallways and bedroom, the light falls upon a photograph left on her bed.

Hazel: The light shines over the photo.

GM: It is a birds-eye view of a hotel room, focused on a young woman drawing spirals on the sheets with her own menstrual blood. A hiking boot lays beside it. Flesh and bone rest within, gnawed on by a blanket of flies. A black cat leaps up onto her bed and joins the gristly feast. The flies scatter, their dark, droning wings fluttering around the air with palpable, crude hunger. The pox-ridden cat gives a low growl at Hazel’s presence.

Hazel: The sight, the photo, the knowledge her nemesis knew where she slept–it should make her scared. It should. But it makes her angry. Her nemesis wants to involve her parents, now does he? Showing up at her mom’s hotel? That makes her pissed. And that settles it. She really can’t keep running. And these stupid animals! No doubt they’ll be happy to report all they’ve seen to their master!

She could be more discrete. But she’s not going to tolerate this thing’s pets on her goddamn bed. Hazel whips out her stun gun–another perk to being the town lawman’s daughter–and squeezes off a round. “Fuck you, tom.” In fact, better if the mangy thing doesn’t report back.

The electrifying projectile, however, goes wide as the hissing cat darts under the bed. Hazel drops to the ground, shines her flashlight at the mangy feline, and fires another shot.

GM: As the electric arc fills the dark recesses beneath the bed with burning cat hair, Hazel remembers why children fear the underside of their beds. That’s where the bogeyman lives. He’s there. He’s always been there. Watching. Waiting. And now she’s come to him.

To him.

As his dark, evil eyes bore into hers, Hazel realizes the picture of Valentin Vladescu was not of the man–but the mannequin. Over the centuries, his form has shifted, such that now, a mere breath away, her Prince Uncharming is dressed in fine evening attire: a back satin shawl tuxedo and crimson bowtie. His face resembles a wooden ventriloquist doll, scratched and scuffed, with old cracks in the pale, pale varnish. His wooden eyes are rimmed in black and wide, so very wide and hungry.

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His hinged jaw opens, revealing perfectly flat, white teeth–until they pivot on cunning springs, revealing rows of razor-sharp porcelain fangs. The thing whispers into her ear, dead breath pressing into her skin. Her soul.

“You. Killed. Them.”

And with those three terrible words, as the black cat convulses in pseudo-death throes, Hazel’s mind unhinges as the curtains of repression are torn down and she remembers. She remembers. “What did you do to them?” the Lamia had shrieked. Hazel had forgotten. But now. Now she remembers.

She remembers butchering them. Albert and Elouise Sweeney. It was fun. She was never really good with people. So she decided to take them apart. Piece by piece. Now she understands. Now she remembers. The gloved hand of Albert’s sitting on the table. The booted foot of Elouise upon her bed. She had hid them oh so very well. Or so cleverly that no one would find them. No one would ever know–including herself. But now she remembers.

She. Killed. Them.

The mannequin-shaped Nosferatu seizes Hazel by the neck with wooden hands that are too strong, too inhumanly strong as its unblinking eyes burn her with the knowledge of what she’s done. What she is. The mannequin’s porcelain-fanged jaw clacks up and down three times.

“You. Were. Right.”

She doesn’t need to ask. She knows. She is insane. She’s incapable of caring for herself. She’s a danger. She’s mad. Fear stops her heart. She slumps over, flatlining as terror floods her body. All of her previous panic attacks were but paper tigers. This is true fear. True, mind-ripping horror with claws and fangs.

The mannequin hands then gently release her and withdraw back into the darkness. From that den of blackness, Vladescu watches her, his fanged teeth clacking.

Hazel: In that moment, Hazel is no longer a woman of nearly twenty-four years. She’s not even the four–year–old who ate her mother’s eggs bare-handed. Her mind is a blank slate. A tabula rasa. There is but one thing she can do.

She runs.

She doesn’t process the motions of her legs or how gross physical matter that is the house’s walls slams into her from every side. Her shins hurt. Her flanks hurt. Her chin hurts. Why does her chin–? But then her shoulders hurt, her arms hurt, her back hurts, her stomach hurts, her chin hurts, but that already hurt, and it’s happening again, again and again, around and around. The stairs are on the ceiling and the ceiling is on the stairs. Everything is spinning like a mad kaleidoscope, and she’s mad too, why didn’t she take the steps one at a ti–?

Her glasses jerk off her nose as she crashes to a broken heap at the foot of the stairs. Something stabs her stomach. Is that something red? Is it the nail polish from her parents’ murderous dolls that’s smeared over her clothes, or is it–

She can’t see. Darkness envelops her.

GM: But the spiral never stops.

It descends.

Evermore.

View
Story One, Chapter Eleven

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Brook: Skin Deep


Thursday afternoon, 9 October 1998

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, gun following his vision. There’s a quick squint before he snaps to the new movement. Epstein’s presence is a weight off his shoulders in one way, a new small panic in another. Putting a hand on Nelson’s back, Brook whispers to follow him closely and stick with the group as he crouch-runs the football boy to the outhouse and their teacher.

One perk of a smaller handgun is how easy he could use it in one hand, the other on Nelson until they get to the biffy, and then pulling 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 shot-gun, 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 that might have traps, and is guaranteed to have someone 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.

Stuffing the buckle and fabric back into his pocket, the young man 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 farm house 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 ax-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: Should what he’s seen in the window be that escapee, his first thought’s that the wolf is going to spend this time to flee his den and find another. But he’s glad that 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. Quickly parking there and hopping 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.

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?”

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 up on his work, slowly leaning 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 4 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.

Then Nelson’s question jerks him back to reality, blinking a moment at the question. “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, letting himself in to look for his Mr. Epstein to show him the drawing.

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 US Marshall 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. US Marshall. 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 the teacher 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, this could be someone close to him 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, and 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.” He 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 radio-ed 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. He 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 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. But 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. Nodding back, he hands both off to the man, still rocking on the heels of his feet, nearly vibrating.

“Yes, Undersheriff Bauman. These were both in the outhouse.”

Brook 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. Even explaining 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.”

He 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 presence precedes 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 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 curses himself for a moment seeing the officer pick it up with the pen, wondering 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. This is, until the two new faces arrive on the scene. 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.

Stepping forward, he 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.”

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 Parks 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. 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 vehicle. The car 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


Thursday afternoon, 9 October 1998

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. “Bit 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 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 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. 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 ‘Mo’. “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.

Kurt: Mind’s Eye


Wednesday noon, 8 October 1998

GM: Kurt’s room doesn’t even have his name on the door; a simple blue curtain partitions the room, and labored breathing comes from the outline of a shape in the bed on the other side. Kurt awakens, his head slightly propped up against a pair of pillows with yellow stains. A pulley sling holds up his leg cast, and an intravenous tube snakes into his arm while a cranial catheter drips bloody cerebrospinal fluid. The bedside table holds a metal sample bowl full of thick sputum as well as a tray with an egg salad sandwich minus a single bite. The white-painted walls are peeling, and the smell of sweat and rubbing alcohol lingers in the air.

Inside his skull, though, Kurt feels like his brain has been flushed with drain-o.

Kurt: Kurt blinks, slowly. “I’ve been here before,” he says with a croak, eyes taking in the worn, yellow-tinged surroundings. His eyes finally settle on the sandwich with one bite taken out of it.

GM: The curtained off figure stirs but does not reply. However, Kurt’s croaking comment draws the attention of someone outside the hall. Shoes clack on the once-waxed linoleum. The doctor walks into the room. He’s dressed in antiseptic white and carries a menacingly large hypodermic needle. His poise is reminiscent of a wax figure. He looks down upon his patient with withering confidence and silent condescension. His eyes are the same brown as cigarette burns. His thin hair matches the stained hospital pillows. His lips are the pink one imagines raw flesh must be, like his mouth is just a gash cut in his face so he can talk through it. His manicured fingers remind Kurt that he makes surgeon money –and that he frequently holds both life and death in his hands. His demeanor is of one well-acquainted to playing god.

doctor.png

The doctor retrieves a thin flashlight from his surgeon’s apron and flashes it in Kurt’s eyes. He does not lower the hypodermic needle.

Kurt: Kurt’s eyes strain under the light; nonetheless, he goes through the same motions as last time. He then stares coldly at the almost-alien doctor, unperturbed.

GM: The doctor clicks off the flashlight and stows it, only to click on a voice recorder. “Subject P—M1AE—92.08.03. Pupillary response assessed. Miosis consistent with dose response curves. Mental status exam to commence.” The doctor, still recording and holding the needle, poses Kurt several questions. “Please identify yourself, including your given and surname.”

Kurt: “Kurt Joseph Crawford.” His answer is glib and to the point.

GM: “What to your best understanding is the current time and date?”

Kurt: “It’s the 8th of October.”

GM: “Of what year?” the doctor asks in a tone that is simply not exasperated because his expectations are so low.

Kurt: Kurt adds, “1998. I wouldn’t have a clue what the time is, but taking a wild guess, I would say it’s after lunch time–-from my half-eaten sandwich.” Kurt continues to stare coldly at the doctor, brain continuing to process this strange deja vu.

GM: The doctor seems unfazed by the cold stare of his “subject”; instead, he speaks into the audio recorder. “Deficits remain in subject’s temporal orientation. Ego orientation appears intact. Responses suggest attachment Class B. Final orientation to commence.”

The doctor returns his cigarette-burn eyes to Kurt. “Why are you here?” He pauses for a moment, as if once again trying to recalibrate his question for his patient’s ‘deficits’. “What events led to you being here?”

Kurt: “I got into a car accident this morning on my way to pick my mother up from work,” Kurt answers deadpan. “I have a broken foot and obviously am at Mount Pelion General Hospital.” He looks pointedly at the doctor as he continues, “I take it my mother has already been notified.”

GM: The doctor replies with all the cold clinical enthusiasm of turning patients over to prevent bedsores: “Mrs. Crawford has been notified of your present situation. You will be approved for visitors pending the successful completion of your exam. Now, please describe in detail everything you recall of the events leading up to, during, and after the car accident.”

Kurt: Kurt relays the same answer as the first time he was asked this question–but only to a degree–omitting both the screaming he heard and elk with a flayed body on its antlers. Kurt–recalling the results of hearing the screaming, or more properly reporting hearing the screaming–omits that detail this ‘time’.

GM: The waxy doctor regards Kurt for while, as if he’s measuring Kurt’s pupillary and respiration rate. Slowly, the doctor holds up his recorder and says, “Subject shows positive response to serum dosage regimen. Recommended treatment: Perform full follow-up assessment, including mental status exam and reality testing, at next appointment. Administer additional serum dosage if symptoms remit. If necessary, implement more invasive procedures if subject proves unresponsive to the aforementioned treatment plan.”

The doctor then turns off his recorder, placing it in his surgeon’s apron, and similarly stows away his large needle. “Your injuries are quite severe. However, your chart will be amended to permit visitation. You are in capable hands.”

Kurt: “I can see that.” A plastic smile appears on Kurt’s face.

GM: There is neither a smile nor any warmth that accompanies the doctor’s words, just an automaton processing of sounds through the mouth-like gash in his face. This time, the doctor leaves.

Kurt: Kurt waits a few seconds after the doctor has left, then he turns to the drawn curtain next door. “What do you reckon?” he asks. “I think that’s the worst doctor in Witiko Falls.” He stares at the drawn curtain with an anxious gaze; waiting raptly for the thing to appear once again.

GM: The shadowy outline of the reclining figure stirs, but only replies with a snore. However, another ‘presence’ does answer him. He hears the color of six hundred and six and the sound of saltiness: Do you like pranks?

Kurt: Kurt pauses, a shiver running up his spine as tries to calm himself. He keeps his composure. “I love pranks. What did you have in mind?” His voice is dry and emotionless.

GM: The answer sizzles in Kurt’s brain like the sound of puce and Sunday:

1N MiNd!

“HaHAHAhahaHAHAHAHhahaHaHAhAAAhahaHAHAHhahhahaHaHa
hAAAhahaHAHAHhAAhahaHaHaHAHAhahaHAHAHAHhaHaHaHAhAAAhaha
HAhahaHAHAHAHhahaHaHAhAAAhahaHAHAHhahhahaHaHaHAHAhahaHA
ahaHAHAHhahhahaHaHaHAHAhahaHAHAHAHhahaHaHAhAAAhahaHAhAh
HAHAHAHhahaHaHAhAAAhahaHAHAHhahhahaHaHaHAHAhahaHAHAHAH
AHhahhahaHaHaHAHAhahaHAHAHAHhahaHaHAhAAAhahaHAHAHhahhah
HAHAhahaHAHAHAHhahaHaHAhAAAhahaHAHAHhhahahahAaAHhahaHaa”

Kurt: Kurt cracks a smile, but his eyes continue to stare at the far wall tinged with splotches of yellow. He turns to his half-eaten lunch and then attempts to finish it. Not as good as Ridley’s steaks, he thinks to himself. Nonetheless, he eats for no other reason than he is hungry and knows even crappy hospital food is still better than the food he usually eats.

GM: Rule No. 1 This time the thought seems to come from his own mind. He thinks.

Kurt: Fuck it, Kurt figures, whether it’s me or not me, what does it matter? It’s still fucking true. He laughs inside his own mind. This time. It’s him. He thinks.

Hazel: Attila Awakens


Thursday evening, 9 October 1998

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.

Brook: Skin Deep


Thursday evening, 9 October 1998

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.

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’s half hour in the 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. Taking the note into the front seat, he reads it as he straps his sidearm back on, only noticing 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 fire 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.

Reservation.jpg

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

Reservation1.jpg

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.

Gus_Stop.jpg

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.

Danny_siblings.jpg

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: 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. 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, waving 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.

Danny_house.png

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 is 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 and 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.” But get this," Daniel continues, passing the cola bottle to his friend, and scooting his chair closer. “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 of what he’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.

Nikki.jpg

“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.”

She then turns back to the three young children who have stopped working since Brook’s entrance. Aunt Nikki 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: 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.” But before he starts out, 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.

Rebecca.jpg

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.

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

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. But 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 beloved 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 US Marshal here in the Falls, I don’t know.”

GM: As the conversation returns to the Crowshoes, Daniel becomes noticeably agitated, his knee absent-mindedly tapping the table as he stabs a green-bean mercilessly. As his aunt tries to change the subject to ask the older boys about school, 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: Of course Brook notices his friend in distress, reaching over and giving him a gentle squeeze on the arm. They both know there’s more to it. But as she asks about school and little Koko gets caught staring at his hands, he quickly moves them 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.

GM: 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 sniggering. Daniel filled him in after class, much to his chagrin. Back in the Littlebeavers’ cramped dinning room, 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: 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, it just adds a tinge of heat to his flushed face. After Koko leaves the table and Danny’s had his laugh, he 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 mohawk-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 re-inforced 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 quickly spiral into the first real sleep he’ll have had today.

GM: The spiral seems like it lasts as long as a toilet flush, but more than three hours go down the drain before Brook is awoken by the sound of Daniel and Harry arguing. Three hours. It’s not nearly enough time, but it more than triples the sleep he’s had in the last twenty-four hours. Perhaps it’s that sleep deprivation or the recent harrowing incidents at the gorge and farmhouse or the fact that he went to sleep with a full stomach in a foreign yet familiar bed, but no nightmares torment the young man today–save those that live in the waking world.

Outside, the waning moon shines pale white fingers through the boys’ curtain. The siblings continue their spat. “Danny, I can’t go to sleep!”

“Probably because you’re bawling too much, Hairball. Maybe if you shut your trap, it’d be quiet enough for you to nod off.”

“But I can’t… not with…”

“If you’re going to act like a sissy, why don’t you go sleep with the girls!?”

“I’m not a sissy!”

Brook: Brook listens for now, an eye slowly peeks open and takes inventory of each of his faculties as they wake up with him. Then he mulls over the conversation. Taking a deep breath in through the nose, the young man turns and sits up on the bed like normal. As if he hasn’t managed to sleep.

But despite the lack of dreams, there’s still that morning grouch in his spine. Things are piling up on his shoulders, and the ‘mornings’ are always times when his temper rises. Something his mother has raised him on a tight leash to beat down and put towards positive tasks.

“Daniel. Your brother obviously thinks I’m a wendigo or some tribal xenophobe shit. Let’s let him sleep in his own bed and head out or something.” Head rush. The young man puts a fist against his chin and cracks his neck both ways before standing up straight. “We can talk in the truck, put tunes on.”

GM: Daniel regards his now-awake friend. “Yeah, whatever, let’s leave the sissy to the room. Make it easier for the ghost buffalo to eat him.” He stands up, grabs his backpack, and throws a dirty towel at his brother.

Brook: Danny has seen Brook when he’s angry more than anyone else has. There was a time he watched his larger friend take an axe to junker car and just scream non-stop for an hour. Through willpower, Brook never lets his friend see what comes after those fits. It’s pathetic. Thanks to tight discipline from his mother, this is as close as the big brute gets to his old ways anymore. Posture like that of a lumbering bear missing its cubs, he leaves the room with his radio, and doesn’t stop until he’s outside.

“Fucking fuck, Danny. Seriously. What does that old man say that your siblings hate me so fucking much? I break my fucking BACK so everyone can be safe! Is my blood JUST SO FUCKING DIRTY!?” It’s a full-on yell, and the young man smashes his fist into the hood of the car as he makes his way to the driver’s seat, jumping in and staring it to see the time.

He starts the breathing. Inhale, one-two. Exhale, one-two. Think of the trees, the snap of bark, the peel of birch, the crunch of pine cones. All the bullshit exercises he’s been put through. “Sorry. Just… long few days.”

GM: The clock says 10:37 pm. Daniel says nothing–not at first. He’s too caught off-guard by the borderline blow-up. But eventually, he composes himself enough to call out, “Brooks, dude, chill, chill, man! It’s not like that, man.”

However, both teens’ words are undercut by the four prepubescent faces fearfully pressed to the log-cabin’s windows, their dark eyes staring at the aftermath of Brook’s violent, screaming outburst.

Unlike Brook, Daniel has his back turned to his house, and remains ignorant of his siblings’ deer in the headlights voyeurism. “Look, my grandfather is like senile. He was always a little messed up, you know, from the war. But after… after my mom died, he broke for real.”

Daniel shivers a bit, his breath steaming in the chilled nocturnal air. “He just sits there all day long. All fucking day. And then he’s gone, like he disappears. He hardly talks–and when he does, it’s all babble in the tribal language that I give two shits about.” He sighs and sucks in the cold air. “The doctors say he’s got Alzheimers’ dementia or something. Just… just forget about him.”

Brook: It’s an hour and twenty minutes before he’s due at the tower, and just an hour he’s got with his friend. An hour of his siblings worrying for his health with the scary man outside their house. Looking at them, Brook’s eyes are even different. Green stares out from under thick eyebrows, betraying him as a mutt. Patting his passenger seat, he mutters for Danny to get in as he turns the heat on and the headlights off. Affording them a decent place to sit and talk.

“Dude, it’s not just your grandpa. It’s a lot of the res folk. They treat me different.” Bringing his hand up again, he looks over the sizes of his fingers and groans. “Your brats are looking at us through the windows, like I’m going to eat you. Your sis pointed out the finger length thing. Your aunt wouldn’t talk about it. I don’t know, man. Things get to me deeper when I’m on the res. That finger thing? It’s nothing. I know I’m not the brightest, my brain is fucked. But here? It bugged me.”

GM: Daniel jumps in, all-too eager to get out of the cold and away from his family. “Brooks, the whole town and res are bugging. Off-res, you and I are just another pair of timber niggers to people like Nelson. On-res, well, we’re two more mouths milking the cash-cow. And people are greedy and jealous.”

He pauses and looks outside at the cloud-veiled moon. “Look, like, your mom gets a big fat check from the tribe because she’s pure Blood. But my mom married a Blackfoot, because, well, incest only gives you so many dating opportunities if you know what I mean. It’s all bullshit, really. Stuff white people just can’t understand. Anyways, because me and my brothers and sisters aren’t pure Blood Tribe, and because my mom is dead, we get shafted. Hard. I swear the tribal council is like high school for grown-ups, with the popular haves and, well, the rest of us. And by ‘haves’, I mean having the right blood which gets you the right money. If it weren’t for my grandfather’s check, we’d be… well, we’d be even worse off.”

He shakes his head and looks back at his best friend. “So, just try and imagine how people here might feel when a kid who as far as anyone can tell has zero drops of Blood Tribe blood gets a huge cut of the res’ monthly money. That’s why my older brother Lij hates you. It’s because he’s half-Blood and gets squat because our mom married a Blackfoot and then jumped out a window, while you rake in thousands because Mary’s a pure-blood who’s never had kids and gives all her money to an adopted outsider.”

“It’s about money. Not fingers or old men watching TV. Money, Brooks. Money makes people crazy–people who have it and people who want it. You’d know that if you spend more time on the res or at the casino.”

Brook: Brook already knows the money part of the equation, but it doesn’t stop the fact that they treated him just as badly before Mary started giving him that allowance. Though the res might not realize it, it isn’t his money. If he doesn’t behave and work hard, he’s shit out of luck. Mary has cut him off in the past. This truck isn’t even really his either, it belongs to the state as a government vehicle. Not to mention how lean him and his mother live, taking home kills not sent off for census. But Danny is right. This res is like one giant fucking high school, and neither of them are in the right clique. Difference being that Danny has the res folks who aren’t pure bloods, he has his big family (for better or worse), on top of most of what Brook has. Their friends. Then he has his own mother, the only part of Danny’s family missing. Though one that spent the last 10 years beating life lessons into him with branches.

“I know Danny, I know. But it’s–besides you, people don’t want me here in the Res, there’s so many dirty looks from all blood platinums that I feel like there’s meetings to talk about how I shouldn’t ever have been pulled out of that burlap sack my parents tossed me in the river in. The town, I can deal with! It’s water off a roof. But it’s not like that on the res. These are supposed to be ‘my people’, right? They aren’t. I have you, I have our little circle, and I have Mary. I don’t have anyone else who cares I exist. Townies think I’m from the res, and the res looks at me like a townie. Or worse.”

He pulls out his sidearm and begins loading it back up, skilled hands working fast. Like it’s cathartic for him as he speaks. “I’m trying, Danny. To get at least these peoples’ approval. I nearly di… Bad Medicine. I nearly died the other day. Three feet from my face. Death. It was just watching me, slunk away when I put my gun in it’s face. It could have taken me. Maybe I’m just… still fucked up about it or something. Sorry, man.”

GM: Daniel gives an accusatory glare at their surroundings. “The whitey-tighties aren’t the only racists in town, Brooks. Hell, I’ve never met anymore more racist than a res native–fuck, some of these pure–bloods make Nelson look color–blind. That’s why I’m cutting loose of all this bullshit. That’s why I’m gonna go to Vegas as soon as I graduate and be a dealer and operator, so I can take money from morons so stupid they give it away.”

“So here’s what I say about the res. Fuck. Them. You’re never gonna win their approval. Not when you’re living large on the tribe’s tit–especially when your blood quantum runs as straight as the Green Lady.” He then turns to the gun. “Now what the hell are you talking about death three feet from your face. And why am I just hearing about it now?”

Brook: Brook looks out into the dark and thinks about it again. That forbidden little whisper in the back of his head. What if he leaves too? What places need people like him? It certainly isn’t Vegas, though maybe he can get away with stripping or something. If he worked and got a pair of abs before graduation. Danny is the smart one, Vegas would be his hunting grounds. Thinking about leaving is terrifying and heavenly at the same time. He’s been brought up to be a Ranger. To be the brave soul in the woods of Witiko, black powder against fang. But if he leaves? Fuck what the res thinks.

“You’ll get there, brother,” is all he manages for the moment, spinning his cylinder and slapping it back into place. Fully loaded. Danny is right again, however. Brook never told him about that day in the pass.

“There was a wolf carcass. I was cleaning it up, a van pulls in. I scare the hell out of them with ghost stories to get them to drive more carefully. Little kid says something like ‘I see the ghost. It’s big and black with scary eyes!’ and points to where I was shoveling roadkill. I go back to where I was, rifle pointed in the bush. Danny, it was big. Didn’t look like a bear, but it was… something. I looked right into its eyes, like an idiot, and it just slunk back down the ravine. Took the wolf’s body I tossed down there, too. Talked to my mom. She’s seen it too. Said it howls wrong, that it’s a part of nature but not of life.”

GM: Dan’s brow furrows. “What the fuck does that mean?”

Brook: Brook narrows his eyes into the dark, looking around the horizon as he switches the safety off his gun and cocks the hammer back to make a point, tapping it on his steering wheel out at the dark. “Native myths that don’t add up. The new librarian, she knows. I’m trying to talk to her about it but she’s like… scared. Really scared, of something. She wouldn’t talk about it in the library.”

Gently pushing the hammer back, he slips the safety back on and carefully pushes his sidearm back in its leather case. “Witiko Falls, man. Questions pile up. I’m fine with her living in the pass, I just don’t want her wandering out. She might get hurt, or hurt someone.”

GM: “Her?” Danny asks, dubiously, then adds, a bit more cautiously, “Are you sure it wasn’t just a shadow… or maybe a messed up bear? I’m just saying you didn’t have much sleep, and you’ve been under a lot of stress.”

He looks out the windshield where Brook punched his own hood. “Frankly, I’m glad to see you blow up, dude. You’ve been acting so sickly-sweet Disney happily ever after lately. It’s good to have the ‘real’ you back, man.”

Brook: Brook doesn’t answer at first, he hesitates and decides against taking out his sketchbook to show him. Instead he just nods. “It. Whatever mangy thing it was.” Though hearing his friend glad about his outburst concerns the young man a little. They’re both angry kids, lashing out at the world.

“My mom was getting worried about me, Danny. She was right, too. We’ve done stupid shit because we were mad. I gotta fucking control myself. No more bricks through windows, hacking up junkers. I’ll probably have a badge and a gun soon. Gotta find a girlfriend or something, to help me calm down, I don’t know. Find a balance.”

Girls. That’s another whole basket of razor wire-wrapped dicks to deal with.

“Maybe I do need to blow up more, Danny. All this bullshit. Make sure you don’t tell anyone, okay? About the weird shit we’re talking about. Spooks in the hospital, bears in the pass, etc. Not with people already so stressed over the hospital gas, and the escaped lunatic, and junk. Plus, it’d suck for my mom to find out I’m ‘being a child’. We should talk about normal shit. Like girls, and how Toby was so sour today.”

GM: Daniel nods. “Alright, we’ll keep all this between us. We’ve been though ugly shit before; we’ll get through this stuff too–together.”

“As for blowing up, how about we blow some shit up. I’ve got a bunch of commodity cans. How about we go drive out to the falls or the old quarry swimming hole and blast ’em like zombie brains. Just like we used to. And along the way, we can talk about how to get you laid. Er, I mean, get a girlfriend,” he adds with a lewd grin and elbow to Brook’s side.

Brook: Brook can only nod, reaching over to pat his friend on the shoulder. They have been through ugly shit before, this is no different. At his suggestion of going out to fire some guns, however, he nervously looks back over to the clock. He can’t be late.

“I don’t think I got time for that tonight, Danny. It’s almost midnight. Besides, speaking of girls, you should sleep and take June out tomorrow.” Digging out his wallet, he pulls out some cash and offers it over to his friend. “I probably can’t hang out, so I’m going to have to take a rain check on driving you guys around. I was going to treat you again to make up for the shitty day out yesterday, anyway.”

GM: Crestfallen at Brook’s rejection, Daniel seems initially reticent towards accepting the handout. However, he eventually caves to the financial temptation, if not to Brook’s generosity. “Okay, that sounds fair,” he says lamely. He then looks to the clock. “So… you want to work on some homework together or something? Until you have to go then, or what?”

Brook: Brook looks a bit guilty. It’s not a handout, he wants to be there for his friend, ease his burden that his best friend has been so busy this past summer. “This week, or next weekend, you should come hang out at the tower overnight. If you don’t mind the guns, the dark, and heights.” It’s an honest offer, one he’s sure he can convince his mother to agree with. He doesn’t have to keep such a close tone on the microphone. “Right now though? Homework sounds good, Dan. Some normal not ranger kid stuff.”

GM: Danny gives a little nod, his mohawk tipped with moonlight. “This weekend, man, let’s do it. I’ll bring the cans. I can’t wait to see how the refried beans explode. Ker-pow!” He fires a mimed gun with his fingers and laughs. “Zombie brains.”

The truck cab turns dark as a wind-blown cloud swallows the moon. Daniel stares out into the night before speaking again. “Do you think you could do it? I mean… do you think you could shoot someone? Pop ’em and drop ’em. For real.” He turns slightly, his shadowed face regarding his best friend’s.

Brook: It’s a good idea, firing into the tree line is the safest way to fire a gun anyway, the larger boy laughing along with his friend. It’s a quick smooth over into the strange mood brought about by the masking of the moon, and an even stranger question, Brook awkwardly looking to the clock as he speaks.

“Mary… she brought me up on stories, y’know? I still don’t know how I feel about Apistotoki or Naapi. But Bloodclot Boy? If anyone tried to hurt anyone I care about, or pointed a gun at me, I don’t know if I could stop myself from reacting. I hope I never have to, though. My dreams are haunted enough.”

GM: Daniel quietly considers Brook’s answer in the darkness. His own reply comes slowly at first. “Yeah…”

“…haunted by Horse-Face!” He punches his best friend in the shoulder while he tries to neigh loudly but only breaks up in laughter.

Brook: Brook has a moment of regret for his answer, wondering if he’s scared Danny any. Of course this isn’t the case, rolling his eyes when the punch comes and chuckling. “I swear to god, Danny, I will drive you to the pass and leave you there. Be nice to her, I have to work with her on this project you know.”

GM: With the clouds still covering the sky, Brook can moreso feel rather than see his best friend raise up his hands in ‘surrender’. He starts to rattle out another jibe, but he loses it in another fit of adolescent guffaws. “Okay, okay,” he eventually says to himself as much as Brook. “Too bad though you aren’t working together in Mr. McDermott’s class… ‘cause I’m sure she’d win the blue ribbon in 4-H!”

There’s another hysterical fit of laughter inside the cab.

Brook: Brook nearly headbutts the top of his steering wheel hearing him pinch off another horse joke at the expense of Leanne. He doesn’t quite get this one but lets whatever 4-H is be. No doubt it’s some kind of country fair whatever. “Danny, I love you, but if you keep that up I’m going to date Leanna JUST so you have to be nice to her on double dates with June.”

GM: So threatened, Danny immediately shuts up–or tries to. A few last snickers slip past his lips before he replies, “So homework, yeah?” He looks at the cab-clock. It reads 10:54 pm.

Brook: Brook bites his lip looking at the time. He should probably get going, but there’s one last thing he can ask. “I gotta be at the station at midnight. Do you wanna grab a change of clothes and spend the night at the station? Or do you gotta watch your little ones?”

GM: Now it’s Danny that bitting his lip. He looks up at his house, where his younger brother’s face is still silhouetted against the bedroom window. “Aw… shit, man. I want to, really… but Lijah’s working the graveyard doing… whatever for Ghost Elk. If I dip out… he and my aunt will…” He shakes his head. “Little brats, you know?”

Brook: Brook understands, it’s not like he’s been the best at just hanging out. But tomorrow is Friday, and with how well he did on his paper thanks to Hazel, he’s no doubt he’ll be re-entering class. “Nah, it’s cool that you’re helping out. We’ll see each other lots tomorrow, hopefully I get some leeway with it being Friday, and we can go and see Cindy in the hospital.”

GM: Indecision still wars on Daniel’s face. Even in the dark, Brook can tell his friend wants to come over.

Brook: Brook shakes his head, reaching over and putting a hand on his friends shoulder. “Stay home tonight, okay, man? Good rest before we go up against those nurses tomorrow.”

GM: Daniel looks like he’s going to protest, but the reminder about freeing Cindy tomorrow causes him to nod. “You’re right. Gotta think long term. If I dip out tonight, they’d fly off their handle and likely get in the way of our plans this weekend.”

Brook: “They’re not too happy with me, so who’s to say if I take you, they won’t walk to the casino to get you in trouble with your aunt, anyway.” Brook looks a bit dismayed at the thought of the kids hating him, but nods. “We’re not freeing her right away though. Remember, we gotta be smart. We don’t have black helicopters.”

GM: “Right, right,” Daniel agrees, his mohawk jostling as he nods. “One step at a time. Speaking of which, Epstein’s homework. I’ll go crank it out for both of us, and you can copy it tomorrow morning before the bell. You have enough to catch up on with that Rome stuff and Veronica’s biology notes.”

Brook: Brook waves his hand. “Nah, I gotta…do it myself. Get caught up fast. That new librarian really helped me out of a jam, no way I’m expelled with the paper she helped me write. You watch Veronica though, I know you are, but we don’t know if June’s the jealous type. I’ve got a long night anyway. All I got planned is to take some callers again.”

GM: Daniel jukes like he’s going to playfully punch his friend again. “Heh, a jealous babe can have its perks, dude.” He chuckles, “But really, I think it’s Horse-Face who needs to worry. Veronica only gave me the notes when she heard you needed them.”

He looks back to clock. “Anyways, I should let you get going. I’ll have the math homework ready for you–if you need it or at least want to look over the answers. I mean, you can aim alright… but you suck at trig.” His wide smile can barely be seen in the dashboard’s lights. The clock flickers at it changes to 11:00 pm.

Brook: Brook chuckles a bit, shaking his head and wondering. Veronica now? He’d have to talk to her a little. “Okay. Thanks a lot, man, I do kinda suck at math. But you get inside! Rally up those kiddies to bed, and I’ll see you tomorrow morning.” Unlocking his doors, he turns the radio off and gives his friend one last pat on the shoulder.

GM: Daniel steps out of the truck and bangs a fist against his chest in farewell salute. “Tomorrow, my brother from a different mother, and remember the immortal words of Tupac, our Lord and Savior, ‘Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real’.”

Brook: Brook laughs and shakes his head. “You’re saying that to the wrong person, Danny! Fuck Tupac and his sound sleep! See you tomorrow!” Closing the doors and locking them, he turns back around and starts driving away, getting on the radio back to Red Aspen.

Hazel: Attila Awakens


Thursday evening, 9 October 1998

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

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

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 cell phone.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. Another time, she might think how three hugs within a 48-hour span is a remarkable record for her, but even someone with a less linear mind than her own would likely fail to presently observe that fact. “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: Dimly, Hazel 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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Story One, Chapter Ten

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Brook, Hazel: Paper-Cut Corkscrew


Thursday morning, 9 October 1998

GM: The Chimera’s newest thrall walks into the library to find the librarian grappling with Mr. Meierhoff’s senior physics class.

Hazel: It’d be a stretch to say that Hazel dislikes the physical sciences as much as math, but not a large stretch. Still, she is thankful not to actually be studying the material and merely helping the students locate books. Clearly expecting the sophomore, Hazel holds up a hand to forestall several seniors with questions as Brook arrives and slides a volume titled Ray Bradbury: Short Stories across the reference desk.

“Okay, you’re here all day. The story you’re reading is the second one in the table of contents, after The Veldt. It’s twelve pages and shouldn’t take you very long to finish. If you have any questions I am right here.”

Brook: Brook watches her stave off the others for a moment as she slides the book over to him, taking a look at it. Twelve pages will be peanuts to read, though after his talk with the principal he wonders how surprised he’s going to be on the subject matter. At least that means he can get to work on the paper before long. Then there’ll be time for him to take the rest of the day to talk with ‘the girl who came back’ and maybe do some research on his new friend in the pass.

“I do have one off the bat, yeah. Were you told how long the paper has to be? Or should I just write it ‘till it’s done?”

Hazel: “Rarely for a school assignment, you have no expected page count. You’re to simply write until you feel you have adequately summarized the story’s plot and connected its themes to the incident that occured in class yesterday. You’ll be turning in the finished report to Principal Gorczak, who is reputed to be a severe grader. Quality will be the byword of the day over quantity.”

Brook: Brook sighs a little and nods, grabbing the book off the desk and thanking her, heading somewhere quiet in the library to sit down and read it. This is probably the deciding factor isn’t it? Do this well or be expelled. Really, he can see this turning into some kind of game between his mother and the principal. One betting against him and the other betting for him. Though that kind of thinking isn’t going to get him very far. Instead he sits and stars to read. 12 pages will take him 10 minutes to go through and digest.

Going through it however, it manages to catch his interest. Going through time itself after you’ve hunted everything in the world? Being bored with the world as you know it, and suddenly going after something too terrifying for you to face. There was a set of rules, and Eckels broke them out of fear. Maybe Brook is taking away the wrong lesson, seeing more a lesson of ‘stay grounded, for a step off the path into cowardice could cost more people than just you’. But he can’t help thinking it isn’t what the principal wants him to see.

There are a few points where he can feel the droopiness in his eyes, but he swallows them back, finally finishing the story after thinking on it awhile, then stands up. Hazel is the librarian, maybe she’ll know what he’s supposed to see. Coming up to the desk, he waits for a moment for her to be free before he steps in.

“Ms. Bauman, do you have a sec to help with this? I’m not sure if I read this wrong or… maybe I’m not seeing the lesson I think she was trying to teach here.”

Hazel: Hazel is currently behind the reference desk trying to look busy reading the student handbook. Her education was in liberal arts, and it’s a simple fact that she isn’t qualified to answer many of the senior physics class’ questions on their own subject matter.

“Certainly. You are having difficulty connecting the story’s themes to yesterday’s incident?”

Brook: Brook puts the book down on the desk as she asks, shaking his head. It isn’t that he doesn’t understand the story, it’s more that he isn’t sure how to write the paper the way she wants him to. From what she said in their meeting to reading the story now, it feels a little different.

“No, no, I get it. I did something, and it’s going to have far-reaching consequences. The principal already said as much. The story just didn’t seem like it was simply saying ‘one little change can change everything’s outcome, beyond you.’ More like. There was a path, and it wasn’t pride or carelessness that made him step on the butterfly, it was fear. Do you know where I’m coming from?”

Brook barely knows where he’s coming from. He isn’t an intellectual, he’s a ranger. “Sorry for the silly questions, I just wanna write this essay the right way, so the principal doesn’t… well, expel me.”

Hazel: Hazel gives a thoughtful frown. “Well, to briefly digress from those questions, the principal can’t expel you. That isn’t how the process works. While the exact procedure varies by school district and state law, you are entitled to a formal hearing before some or all of the school board, as well as permitted a lawyer to represent you.”

Hazel pauses and awkwardly finishes, “So perhaps you may derive some comfort from that fact.”

Brook: Brook leans a little against the desk as she seemingly tries to comfort him from the fact he may be expelled. “Let’s just say that I think this paper is the start of that whole process. I’m a daytime narcoleptic and night-time insomniac. Not exactly good student material. Plus there’s my job and… it’d just be a better idea to do this essay how the principal wants it, I think. Not actually what I’m reading into.”

Hazel: “I am sorry for your respective conditions and the inconveniences they pose,” Hazel wishes, no less awkwardly. She is thankful, however, as the conversation veers back to more familiar realms–and even more thankful for the year she spent as an English instructor after graduating Gonzaga. ‘Student with English questions’ is a script she can follow. Even if she’s used to following it online.

“Well, to begin with, I would seek to answer the essay in your own words and in your own voice, rather than as you believe Principal Gorczak desires it answered. Any educator worth their figurative salt will be able to tell the difference, and frankly, and I suspect you will write a less effective paper if you do not remain ‘true to yourself.’ On that note, what are some parallels you can draw between the story’s themes of interconnectedness and your own work as a park ranger? Or, asked another way, what are some lessons contained in the story that you believe are applicable to your work as a park ranger?”

Brook: Brook is a bit more comfortable with her being comfortable. There’s an awkward cadence to how she speaks to him that he can’t put his finger on. Of course, having only met her a few times when he was a little bean sprout still firing cap guns, he has no idea of the real reason behind it. Just chalking it up to her Witiko weirdness. Though, when she asks that question, immediately everything about last night comes flooding into his head. Yesterday was a little strange, with him telling her about that name the teacher screamed out, and getting sent to the nurse’s office instead. But now she’s brought something up he can twist into a better question.

Pulling his bag off his back, he looks over his shoulder just a bit to make sure no one sees as he pulls his sketchbook out. Quickly, he flips to the page and slides it over to his new librarian. The Native teen gives her a steady and serious look before he leans more onto the desk. “Do you know where Rockwell’s Fall is?”

Hazel: Hazel closes the sketchbook and slides it back to Brook. “Let’s try to stick to your actual work as a ranger rather than sketches you’ve made on the job. It’s a very good drawing, though. You should enroll in an art class, I’m sure you’d receive straight A’s.” Her contact’s emailed words flash through her head again. You are being observed. The warning may be real. It may be false. It’s certainly safer to operate off the assumption that it’s true until she can verify or debunk it.

Brook: Brook bristles a little bit as she insinuates he doesn’t take his Ranger duties seriously, but he takes a short breath and opens it back up, propping it on the counter in his hand so she can still see it. “Rockwell’s Fall is also known as Bad Medicine. Last night a family of possums and a timber wolf were run over. I cleaned them up as part of my actual work. Last night, this was my T-Rex, and I didn’t step off the path. Or that’s how I see it.”

ROSEWATER isn’t part of the boy’s world beyond making him a little suspicious at times, no one has warned him about anything. There are no words making him wary of people asking questions. Right now he’s trying to make a point, maybe get some information. Or maybe she’s been away from Witiko Falls long enough to forget. “It’s fine if you don’t believe me, we can just keep this to the essay.”

Hazel: “We are keeping this to your essay, Brook, which includes relevant life experiences that will assist you in writing it. I will thank you not to veer off-topic a third time when there are other students who desire my assistance,” Hazel states pointedly. Her tone relaxes as she continues, “Continuing my earlier line of inquiry, what are you some lessons contained within the story that you believe are applicable to your work as a park ranger?”

Brook: Just a little defeated, he closes the sketchbook back up and drops it into his bag, zipping it back up rather roughly. Maybe she really is just another teacher. “Fear. When you’re surrounded in the blackness of a predator’s territory, flinching in the face of it can get you and other people killed.” It’s the point he was trying to make before, but without the sketch of the shadow of Bad Medicine. “Consequences when you don’t listen, as well. If you don’t know an area, you don’t run in unprepared because of pride. Like the idiot in the story did.”

Hazel: Hazel nods. “All very applicable. Let’s examine the root cause of the story’s occurrences as well. Why did Eckels go on the safari at all?”

Brook: Brook has already outlined why but nods a little at her question. “He was bored. He’d already hunted everything on earth, he wanted a higher thrill.”

Hazel: “He did want a thrill. It was more than he could handle, and he ended up causing a great many problems for his safari guide–and the world at large. Do you ever run into people like that in your line of work?”

Brook: “That’s half the job. Drivers, tourists, hikers, poachers. Ask your father tonight about his trip to Mrs. Gunderson’s last night, she’s always smuggling canines into Witiko,” he says, a little more than used to tracking missing idiots. “Uhhh… I was verbally attacked by a militant vegan on the air last night.”

Hazel: Hazel frowns. “That’s very cruel of her. And illogical. The behavior of mammals within the town is well-documented. But so far as those people who are half your job. What do you usually do with them? Socratic as well as non-Socratic question on my part, by the way. The guide informed Eckels of everything he needed to do in order to have a safe safari–safe insofar as hunting a tyrannosaurus rex could be–and he still screwed up. Could the guide or safari agency have done anything differently?”

Brook: “Yeah. She needs a parrot. As for the job, I lead them back to the town. If they’re poaching, I’ll have my mom or Chet arrest them, or worst case scenario a shootout occurs. The agency though. Besides it not existing in the first place, which is much safer, I think it would have been a better idea to have more extended training for the event. See the dinosaur from a distance. Study it. Fear is a lot of not knowing what will happen, and flinching at that fear messed the future up. Safety has nothing to do with fear. You’re perfectly safe in a tall building but people are still scared of falling. Fear isn’t rational or predictable. It’s just… fear.”

Hazel: “‘Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.’”

Brook: The quote is nice and all, but he’s starting to wonder where she’s going with this, leaning a bit more on the desk. “Ms. Bauman, is there a point to these questions, or are you just trying to put things into perspective? Because I think we’ve veered a little off-track. This all started with the incident with the dart? Instead of drawing names of places, we threw darts and mine bounced off the cork board. Causing chaos and bloodshed, though not through any pride or carelessness. Maybe I should just start this paper, and we can talk a bit more privately later. When you don’t have to worry about the other students. Among other things.”

Hazel: “The answer to your question is yes, Brook, as there is both a point to my questions and I am aiming to put things in perspective. What you just observed was an example of the Socratic method of teaching, whereby an instructor asks students open-ended questions to develop critical thinking skills and encourage them to arrive at their own conclusions, asking further questions when necessary if the students do not appear to be considering the full complexities of a topic. It is also a principle that psychologists can employ, albeit rather differently, who would phrase it as helping patients arrive at their own personal revelations rather than simply telling them how they ought to live their lives.”

Hazel pauses in her quasi-lecture. “If you wish to work on the paper yourself, that is acceptable. The terms of your suspension do not require you to engage my assistance. If you should still desire it, I will remain available to provide it. I apologize, however, if the quotation appeared non-sequitur. It was meant to be humorous.”

Brook: Brook has to take a second. Up until the the end everything is fine, but the word ‘non-sequitur’ throws him. If just for a moment before he connects the dots. Despite that, he wonders if she realizes that’s a little less effective of a psychological method if the person you’re using it on is quite aware of what you’re doing. Like yelling that you’re going to shoot a deer before you actually shoot the dear.

“You don’t have to apologize, Dune was a great book despite me being more a horror fan. Far as the essay goes, I’d appreciate your help. But for now, I’m going to the back of the library where it’s quieter to start on this mess. I’d appreciate it if you came to check up on me once or twice, however. Besides narcolepsy, maybe you’ll be more comfortable talking where no one can hear us.” Brook isn’t being very subtle with his hints, but he feels that she needs them a bit more blunt than most. She’s smart, sure! But something is up.

Hazel: “Yes, it is a very good book. If that is what you wish, I will check in on you as time permits.” Without further ado, Hazel turns to assist an incoming gaggle of students.

She checks in again before the end of the period to see how Brook is doing on his paper. When the bell rings, she informs him that she will be using the bathroom, and to move his things up front so that he can explain where she is, just in case she’s late in returning. She already knows why as her stomach rumbles. Entering the faculty bathroom, she locks the stall door and promptly throws up into the toilet. Her stomach heaves as she clutches the rim and shakily tears off a few strips of toilet paper to wipe her mouth. She stares at the wet, yellow-colored, gunky remains of her breakfast burrito for a moment, then shudders. Brook’s picture. The journal. Its last story. All the dots connect into a key that fits inside her head, opening up the memories she’d tried so hard to lock closed.

As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold


Her stomach heaves again. A dozen little wet plops sound from inside the toilet bowl. She remains huddled against the seat for a few moments, eyes closed. Finally, she rises and flushes the toilet. She turns on the sink, washes her mouth and hands, gargles some water. Throws the soiled paper towels in the trash. Pops a breath mint.

If only what was dredged up in her mind could be so easily purged.

Hazel: Hazel returns to the library, grimacing slightly. Her watch says she’s late.

GM: And Mr. Fleischer is there to make sure she won’t live it down.

Hazel: “Berating another for laxity in their teaching duties is the height of hypocrisy for you, Mr. Fleischer,” Hazel coolly informs her former English teacher. She liked this one a lot less than Murff.

GM: “Oh, look who decided to finally show up,” the mustached, dark-haired man says with his flat white, toothy sneer, brushing aside her own barb.

Fleischer.jpg

He makes a shooing gesture to her. “It’s okay, Ms. Bauman, I already have things covered.” True to his words, his students are looking through the books quietly.

Hazel: Hazel likewise takes a leaf out of the lazy teacher’s own book. “Have you been reading any Poe lately perchance, Mr. Fleischer?”

GM: Mr. Fleischer looks up with a languid expression as if he had already forgotten Hazel’s presence. “Shhhh, no talking in the library.” Several students laugh. Quietly.

Brook: Brook went to the front of the library when he was asked to, pulled out of a stupor of fighting sleep and working hard. But he took the chance to sit behind the big dick librarian desk. Just like he was asked, he told the students coming in with a clear authoritative voice that she was would be right back and to take their seats. Even when the teachers came in, he was standing behind the desk.

That’s when the cat fight starts. Witiko Falls is nothing but old blood at this point, there aren’t a lot of exceptions. These two seemingly don’t like each other. He might as well step in and help Hazel out. Curry some favor.

“Oi oi. Mr. Fleischer, I said when you all came in that she was out. I doubt she was feeling well, but she’s here now. Give her a break!” Making a motion to the kids in the library, he hopes some of them will recognize him and help him out here. “These kids came to get the day over with, not listen to some beef you have with a former student. You really wanna make their day harder by angering the tamer of the Chimera? I doubt any of us could find anything in this mess without her.”

Hazel: Hazel smiles daggers and continues on. Her voice is quiet. She wouldn’t want to distract the class by humiliating their teacher in front of them. Too badly, at least. “Poe just seems to be awfully popular among the language arts faculty these days. I was talking to Murff a few days ago, and ‘Nevermore’ was like this jingle he couldn’t get out of his head. ‘Nevermore. Nevermore.’ Even the raven in the poem couldn’t get it out of his. You’re not having that problem yourself, are you?”

‘Tamer of the Chimera,’ too. She likes that moniker.

Brook: Brook has no fucking idea what they’re talking about with regards to a poet, but he continues on where leaves off. Minorities don’t like bullies, even if they are teachers.

“He’s certainly not having an issue badmouthing our vice principal’s niece and being creepy about it too. What was that you said? ’She’s probably in the back jacking off. She’s a nutcase who used to do that all the time in class, fingering herself like a retarded kid fishing for gold in their nose.‘? I’m sure he’d love to hear all about that. Not to mention the principal, I wonder how she’d react to you saying such lewd things to her students. Great example there, chief.”

GM: Brook’s words give pause to several of the laughing seniors. Meanwhile, ‘Nevermore’ digs under Fleischer’s skin with some unknown venom, but the more senior staff member slings mud right back as he snatches a book from one of his students and scans its barcode. He sneers in a way that makes Hazel feel both violated and belittled as he whispers: “Oh, let me, Ms. Bauman. I wouldn’t want you to over-exert your fingers, or maybe get too worked up and have another anxiety attack and have to hide under the table. Oh, now, don’t get too excited, I can see your face turning all red and your nostrils flaring and hands shaking. Best you sit down.” He then turns to Brook. “And you, young man, have a dirty disgusting mind who clearly misheard me.”

The students roar with laughter. But it is clearly not at anything that Artie or Hazel or Brook said. In fact, they have stopped listening to the teacher’s petty diatribe. Instead, they are laughing amongst themselves, passing notes in the aisles, flashing sketches that Hazel’s peripheral vision suggests are far from appropriate, though their exact content remains unclear. It takes the clearly flustered Artie quite some time to round them up and herd them out of the library, his own nostrils flaring and face flush with anger. As they depart, Hazel spots a note stuffed into one of the books in a nearby aisle. Brook also sees another looseleaf sheet of paper drift down from another nearby shelf.

Hazel: Hazel’s teeth clench as she yanks the scanner away. Several minutes later, she stammers, “I’m sorry, but I’ll have to request that you wash your hands before you touch any library equipment, on account of so regularly using them to jizz off to Nixon-presidency tranny-mags,” she hisses.

GM: Hazel’s remark comes ridiculously too late, with no one but Brook to hear her blood-boiling slur hiss off her tongue.

Hazel: Fuming, she makes a mental note to reuse it later. After all, if he didn’t hear it the first time, it’ll still be new. Granted, there won’t be as good an opening if he isn’t actively trying to use the library scanner. No matter. She’ll think up other barbs. She snatches up the first note.

GM: The first note has sketch of a crude stick figure with dark long hair, glasses, and a cape with a caption: Super-Retard is so super she fucks herself!

Hazel: Hazel stares at the illustration, seething. Too childish to be Fleischer’s (if not, that’s a new low even for him). She nearly crumples it up–and has to sharply remind herself to heed reason before emotion. After all, if it’s crumpled, it’ll be harder to examine the ‘evidence.’

Attila doesn’t start fights, but she does finish them. She’ll make this student’s life hell.

Brook: Brook is steaming on the inside, he hates bullies. But still stares into the eyes of the beast as the teacher walks away. There’s nothing left for him to say, though he listens to Hazel’s anger, wanting to reach out to put a hand on her shoulder, but misses her as she goes off to snatch up the note. There’s another he spots on top of that. He strides over to pick it up as well, to help out his new librarian. The one he might have just seriously fucked up for.

GM: The second note is a less crudely rendered drawing, but even cruder in subject matter. It’s a quick cartoon sketch of the naked English teacher and librarian having sex on a stack of books.

Brook: Brook sighs and walks back to Hazel, handing her the second one as well, nodding over to where it was found. It’s fucking disgusting, but it’s good to have a bit of proof. “I’m really sorry this all happened. Do you want me to hang around the front desk for a while for company? Or is there another group coming through soon?”

Hazel: “Not as sorry as they’ll be,” Hazel quietly seethes. She looks over the drawing. It’s not as offensive as the first one. “It’s still thirty-five minutes until the next class. There are ones coming in every period.” She sounds marginally calmer as she rattles off familiar facts. “I have handwriting samples. I know the class and the period. They’ve made a very foolish mistake.”

Brook: Brook things for a moment, looking up at the clock. “35 minutes until the lunch bell, Ms. Bauman. We got all the time in the world. But–ugh… more than that? I think I’ve put myself over the edge.”

Slowly, it starts to sink in. He just mouthed off to a teacher while on an in-school suspension. “Fuck. If that asshole gets wind I’m on the chopping block, things won’t end well. My mother will be heartbroken.”

Hazel: “He’s not your teacher. I doubt it will come up. I will accept the blame on your behalf if by some chance it does.”

Brook: It’s a small comfort… but it’s a comfort. He’ll take it. “Jeez… then let’s nail this bastard. If I have him as a teacher in the future, I want him to remember my face and fear its wrath.”

Hazel: Hazel’s fist clenches around the notes. “I intend to, one way or another. He is objectively unsuited to hold his position. I was of this belief even before our recent altercation.”

Brook: “He was a scumbag when you went to school here too? What a surprise.” Brook sighs a bit and walks on behind the librarian’s desk, pulling out his bag. “Before any of that though, I need to make sure he has as little ammo on me as possible, and finish that essay. I’m going to write it how they want me to write it too. I’d welcome your help if you want some time to cool down before you start plotting our revenge. Hot-headed hunter is a dead-headed hunter.”

Hazel: “Your idionism is all-too correct, though I know it as ‘revenge is a dish best served cold.’” Hazel looks up at her watch, as if finally comprehending the passage of time. “There is some blessing in Fleischer’s premature departure. I’d be glad to provide the assistance you seek.”

Brook: Brook nods. That’s true. But he has a bunch of metaphors in his head from his mother’s advice. Most of it is brutally practical, less poetic than what he’s sure Hazel has. By her instruction he writes a quick draft, outlining what he has in mind for the overall thing. This needs to be directed to what the principal wants, instead of what he thinks. Once Hazel takes over and starts to help him, however? It’s a fucking masterpiece. It goes from a B to an A+ immediately, and stands as an achievement in very little time. Despite her awkwardness, there’s a straightforward nature to how she put answers to his questions that gels with him. It’s perfect, and it’s done.

Hazel: Ironically, Hazel does not provide answers so much as continue to ask open-ended (if very pointed) questions to spur Brook’s own critical thinking and encourage him to relate the subject matter to his own actions and life experiences. By the time she is finished, the teenager may well be surprised by how eloquent and thoughtful a writer he can be.

GM: The beginning of the fourth period bell signals their collective triumph. That, and their lunch break.

Hazel: Hazel looks up at the bell. “All right, good job on the paper. I’ll be closing this place up for lunch.”

Brook: Brook carefully puts the paper into his bag when they finish up. Though… he spots his notebook again. Now that he’s stood up for her, and her for him, he feels a bit guilty. Panic attacks aren’t something he’s had to deal with, but there’ve been other things. He remembers the sleep paralysis from growing up. Screaming for help with after-visions of nightmarescapes around his bed while chained to its posts. Eventually, with help, he overcame it. But he remembers that feeling.

“Ms. Bauman? Look, I’ll just say it straight. I’m sorry for prodding you for answers. First about that guy that my teacher screamed about and then what I saw at Bad Medicine. I could tell you were paranoid about it, but I pushed. So… yeah, sorry. And thanks for helping with this paper. If you need anything from me, you can name it.”

Hazel: “Well, I’m not sure paranoid is the word I might use so much as focused. Talking about Mrs. LeBaron was distracting the class, and sketches of fictional creatures weren’t relevant to the subject matter at hand. But I digress. That’s water under the bridge.”

Hazel manages a smile, perhaps the first one Brook’s seen from the new librarian. “You are welcome, in any case. Providing help to students is what I’m here for.” She pauses. “I hope you are not expelled, and that the paper is of some assistance towards that end.”

Brook: Brook smiles in turn, but there’s still something bothering him. “My mother is the toughest woman in this town, she’s more a match for the principal. I’ve got confidence. Especially now that I have proof that I can work, despite the falling asleep thing.” It’ll help more than a little he imagines. But the creature, he can’t leave it alone.

“‘By night, they howl like the coyote or screech like the owl. Their cry speaks of bad things. When a true coyote howls, or a true owl screeches, another coyote or owl replies. But when the shilombish mimics the sound of either beast, silence is the only answer.’”

For a moment, he pauses and tightens his fists. “Can I use the library for the rest of the day? Even if I’m insane, I need to know more about it. It’s in my forest, and I–it’s stupid, but I looked it in the eyes. I’m afraid it might take that as a challenge. That it might leave the Pass after me. I’d face 100 t-rexes to keep my mother from having to see one.”

Hazel: Hazel just gives a blank look at the continued paranormal talk. “Well, you are here as part of an ISS, and are expected to spend the remainder of the day helping me catalog books. But that shouldn’t be any big deal. You’re free to use the library for whatever you want when it’s open tom…”

I could be dead tomorrow.

The key this morning with the… well, shilombish is one name for them, turning the lock on the book she’d so desperately slammed shut.

As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold.


But it’s not a world bereft of the supernatural. It’s one where the supernatural is all-too real. Where vampires are real.

And just like that, the memories she’d so desperately suppressed and washed away in the shower this morning, then vomitted into the toilet bowl, come crashing back in full. Vampires are real. And one wants to kill you. She was going to research it. Delve into the familiar, comforting realm of her books and tomes for the answers she so craved. But that sanctuary has been invaded by hoards of needful students and awful old Mr. Fleischer, leaving her not a moment to herself. Facing this thing without any knowledge is… I’m going to die. Tonight, in my own house. And no one believes me.

The panic attack hits as suddenly as the vomitted-up burrito left her stomach. Hazel promptly crashes off her chair and onto the carpeted floor, her glasses skiffing away as she shakes uncontrollably.

And they’re watching! THEY’RE watching! THEY’RE SEEING ALL OF THIS!

Brook: Brook’s pushed too far. Is this it? The panic attacks she has? Shit. As Hazel goes tumbling to the floor, he acts quickly, snatching up her glasses so she doesn’t wreck them and getting between her and her desk so she doesn’t bash against anything but him. What is it? It’s in his training fleeing disaster situations. Breathe!

“Hazel, you can do this. Breathe.” Inhale, he counts out loud to two for her. Exhale, he counts to two. He offers her hand to grab if she needs it and just keeps breathing, not touching her directly. They just need to ride this out. He knows he could go and get a teacher, but first response habits are in the forefront of his mind instead.

Hazel: Hazel clamps her eyes shut, mindlessly rocking back and forth. She’s going to die. She’s going to die. Vampires are real, and she’s going to die. Black tendrils curl across her vision as unconsciousness and oblivion sweetly beckon. Oblivion, like she’ll find at…

Damn it, she can’t have this stupid attack now! Not in front of a student. Not when she needs to research this thing, could still have some fighting chance, however slight.

Her eyelids feel like malfunctioning elevator doors as she forces them open–too heavy and constantly trying to shut back to where they’d been. Nevertheless, she shakily jerks a hand towards the direction of her backpack.

“…urse… meds…!”

Brook: Brook gets the message clear enough. He scrambles to her bag, nearly ripping it open. Within moments everything in her bag is on the floor as he digs through it, quickly finding the bottle of pills and running over to her, reading the label and opening it up for her. “I’m going to get it in your mouth, I’m sorry if this hurts!”

His oversized teen hand grabs her head under the chin, while the other brings the pill up to her mouth, nearly forcing it into her mouth, trusting her to swallow it, not willing to force it down her throat until he can be sure she can’t take it herself, quickly taking his hands off of her and returning to his position to keep her from hitting the desk.

Hazel: Hazel instinctively recoils from Brook’s arm and tries to twist her head away from his pill-bearing hand. Putting something in her mouth would be odiously intrusive even from her parents. Once the Affreux passes down her throat and Brook stops touching her, however, her body relaxes. Her face twitches once as if in reflexive memory, but her voice is calm and slow after she takes a measured breath.

“I am all right. It was an anxiety attack. Purely psychosomatic. I am physically unharmed.”

GM: It doesn’t take long for the Nostrum-produced Affreux to kick in. Hazel feels like the fast-acting sedative drug wraps her blood-stream in an old, familiar blanket and whispers ‘shhhhh’. Her heart slows, her breath slows, time slows. With only one pill of Affreux, Hazel’s voice remains unslurred, but her pupils dilate like large black moons–moons that are now all the more obvious for their lack of anisocoria. Her slow-breathing nostrils and sensate fingers pick up the smell and texture of bleach–and the lingering hint of scrubbed-out blood.

Hazel: She instinctively shuffles a few feet to the left. The bleached-blood’s presence pokes at her calm like a child’s finger against a blown bubble, but does not yet burst it.

GM: With the pseudo-crisis abated, Hazel’s shuffling draws Brook’s attention to the carpet as well.

Brook has heard about the infamous stain. But this is the first time he’s truly inspected it up close and personal. It appears to a large dark-red stain that has been laboriously scrubbed with bleach, creating a fleshy-pink smear on the otherwise tannish stretch of carpet. Perhaps most disturbingly, Brook can almost make out the outline of a torso and an extended arm. Perhaps it is his imagination, but it looks like the arm was trying to spell or scrawl out something… with whatever caused the stain. Any attempt to read or discern the deduced message is thwarted, though, as that section of the carpet is the one that was most thoroughly bleached and scrubbed clean.

No, not cleaned, but exorcised.

Brook: Brook’s hand doesn’t falter too much at her pulling away, keeping firm but letting her pull away just enough that she isn’t hindering the pill’s delivery. After all, he’s more than a little large for a man, let alone a sophomore. Once it gets in there and the librarian starts to calm down, his shoulders finally sloop in relief. “Yeah, I… that asshole mentioned them, and I have disaster relief training as a ranger,” he says, standing up and offering her a hand to do the same. But she shuffles away from something, and there it is. There she is. The rumors were never backed up by anything but the fact the place was closed, but that stain? It put things into grim perspective. The young man swallows hard for a moment, bristling a moment in anxiety himself before he beats it down and turns back to Hazel. Best not to point it out right now. “Do you need some water? I can carry you somewhere quiet? Anything?”

Hazel: Hazel’s tone is as slow and relaxed as her pupils are large. “The Affreux is performing its job. It’s essentially a tranquilizer. I thank you for the offer all the same–as well as for retrieving my medication.” Hazel starts to gather up her various discarded effects into the black designer purse purchased with her mother’s money. Besides traditional staples such as tissues and tampons, there are also plastic evidence bags, fingerprint samples, and other equipment that would be useful at a crime scene.

Brook: “Don’t worry about it, I’m just sorry for the mess, and if the grip hurt of course.” Brook is a lot calmer too, now that she isn’t convulsing. But at the same time, Nostrum has always rubbed him the wrong way. Much as it seems to help, he wonders what kinds of side effects it will have, again remembering to before they got his own head under some small semblance of control. Seeing what’s in her bag however makes quite a bit of sense. After all, she is the undersheriff’s daughter. However scared she seems to be of whatever’s looming over her shoulder, at least it tells him he isn’t barking up the wrong tree.

“If you want, I can bring an area rug for you tomorrow. It can’t be easy having this… particular desk.”

Hazel: Hazel placidly gathers up her cellphone, walkman and attached headphones back inside the purse. “That is a thoughtful offer, and a solution I had not considered. I would thank you to do so. The sight can be… distracting. To both students and faculty. Or at least, those who are behind the desk, which I frequently am.”

Brook: Brook nods a little, looking to the stain and tracing it out again in his mind. What was the old librarian trying to say? And why is the outline so perfect? “Besides getting a construction blade to rip it up, that’s the only solution I can see. Blood is difficult to wash off if it’s allowed to sit for long. I’m surprised it wasn’t already cut out.”

Hazel: “Well, you know what they say about public school budgets. Extra bleach and hiding it behind the desk was likely the most they were willing to do.” Next, Hazel casually scoops up her predecessor’s journal along with paperback copies of Brave New World and Germelshausen, the latter her uncle’s ‘welcome to the job’ present. The book stands out less hidden among two of its neighbors.

She continues, “Though I hope there will not be a subsequent occasion when you need witness one of my attacks, be aware that I am averse to physical contact with others and it is usually better for me to take my own medication. However, you could not have known as much, and I do not begrudge your unawareness. Having the Affreux administered remains a net positive over not having it administered.”

Brook: Brook’s eyes wander back to the stain and stay there even as she speaks. There’s something off. “Y-Yeah, sorry. Training kicked in again. Most traumatized victims and… and animals don’t swallow. You have to force it down their throat with a thumb.” His words are half-baked and taper off as he thinks. Slowly making his way to the stain. On his knees again, he brushes his fingers along the pink, squishing the fibers and smelling his finger. Leaning down even more, he takes a full on lungful through his nose. He breaks into a whisper, slapping at the ground beside her to get her attention. “Ms. Bauman, this isn’t right.” There’s a shudder through his body as he presses down hard on the spot, getting the feeling on his hand. “How many times have they bleached this spot? I know blood–this was recent. Yesterday recent.”

Hazel: “That’s probably just anxiety talking. Believe me that I know. It’s better to cover such things up, Brook,” Hazel replies in that same placid tone. She gathers up a pack of breath mints and a notepad into the purse next. “Thank you for volunteering to bring a rug, it is very thoughtful.”

GM: As Brook considers the medicated librarian, he knows the truth: It is anxiety talking–but hers, not his. She’s trying to stonewall him. Again.

Brook: Brook shakes his head at the woman and turns his attention back to the stain. “There’s still something bleeding here,” he mutters, slowly following a stupid thought. From his knees he slowly lowers himself onto his belly, getting into the same position as the former librarian, extending his arm out where the stain is trying to tell them something. Like… this–yeah. What was she trying to spell out? What did they bleach out? If this was made yesterday, is it possible they have to re-bleach it every day? It might be disrespectful, but there’s a mystery here. One that maybe resulted in the death of their former librarian. Brook isn’t the smartest, but this is his town and his friends and family. If it means they could be a bit safer? He’ll dig.

Hazel: Another teacher might place a hand on Brook’s shoulder at this point, but it is perhaps little to the sophomore’s surprise that Hazel does not after her recent statement. “Brook,” the librarian states, “Please leave the carpeting be.” Between the medication and their recent experiences together, Hazel’s tone is gentle and attempting not to come off as bossy, but there remains an underlying firmness that is not a mild request.

Brook: Brook was hoping something might come to him, staring up at that hand. But as the teacher speaks to him, he knows it’s not the way he’s going to be getting answers from this rug. Feeling a bit silly, he gets up and brushes himself off. This isn’t right, but he’ll let it go for now. They can set up cameras, find a blacklight. Bleach can’t wipe that away perfectly, right? Do some mystery novel investigation shit. For now though, he feels like it’s time to give the poor woman some damn space. There isn’t long before the next class. “Sorry. You’re right, I must just be… anxious. I get restless sometimes. Uhm–yeah! Books. I was supposed to be labeling them, you said? Can I have the labels?”

Hazel: “Yes. As you may or may not be aware,” Hazel explains, “the library is finally leaving the dark ages and abandoning its old slip card and stamp system for digital barcodes. This entails the tedious but necessary process of placing labels on every book in the library.” After pulling the lost of her discarded effects into the bag, Hazel stands up and pulls over a box of labels.

She pauses, frowning to herself. “Actually, you can hold off for now, it is still lunch break. You should go and eat something with your peers. As I should do.” She then frowns again and rubs her head. The meds… they make it harder to think straight. “No, never mind again, you are on ISS. But take a lunch break. You can start with cataloging next period. If your lunch is home-packed, that is. If you wish to purchase it from the cafeteria, I am required by protocol to escort you there and back. As you are clearly a dangerous criminal and cannot be left unsupervised.” It’s hard to tell when Hazel is being sarcastic, but that might well be one of those times.

Brook: Brook answers by walking to his bag and pulling out a metal lunch pail, jingling it around. “If it’s all the same to you, I’d like to eat lunch here. Maybe you can point me to a book on Picts so I can get started on the next assignment while I eat?” Really though… he can feel his body start to rebel. It might be a nap lunch.

Hazel: Hazel pulls the one she’d already found off the reserve cart and slides it over. “As the figurative saying goes, knock yourself out. They are a fascinating civilization. One of the proud few to successfully resist the Romans.”

Brook: Brook grabs the book and flips it around to check the front and back. “Well at least I got one worth reading about. The accident was my trying to select the area around Iceland. Vikings and Danes, sea raiders and warriors. I’ll be back where I was before. Thanks again, Ms. Bauman.”

Hazel: “Ah, that is unfortunate. My paternal ancestors were Germanic, so the Vikings are of some interest to me. Nevertheless, I bid you good reading.”

Brook: With the starting point of his new project under his arm, he retreats back to where he was sat earlier. Cracking it and his lunch kit open, snacking on a baggy of sugary gummies to try keeping awake. Not that it does much.

GM: Retiring to another table with his lunch, Brook regards the librarian’s selection. It is a perantique item of curious craftsmanship. The book’s leather cover has been tooled with repeating patterns, dimples, and protrusions that seem to yearn to be touched and caressed along their supple curves. The interior hand-cut and hand-blocked printing suggests that the book may be a century old, or perhaps more. The title of the slim manuscript appears to have been branded into the soft leather. It reads: I Have Heard the Pallid Colour of Howling in the Labyrinth and Learned that It was Mine

The foreword explains that the contents of this book are taken from the British Museum Harleian MS 3859, sometimes referred to as Nennius’ History of the Britons with appendices, but commonly known to modem scholars as the British Historical Miscellany. The latter title is the most appropriate, for it is nothing more than a hodge-podge collection of documents with no attempt at inventory or categorization, and contains, among other things, Latin orations, part of a sermon by St. Augustine of Hippo, and an obscure Scythian geography. Acquired by the Harleian Library in 1729, it has been dated to the latter half of the tenth century and attributed to the scriptorium at St. David’s.

The foreword explains that what follows is a ‘modern translation’ that remains just a fragment of the original decayed and worm-eaten manuscript. Reading further, Brook learns from the foreword that “the narrator, one Titus Germanicus, was a centurion stationed at Corstopitum (modem Corbridge), along Hadrian’s Wall sometime around 200 AD. His efforts to push the frontier farther north no doubt resulted from Emperor Septimius Severus’ desire to see the Roman border surround the entirety of the British Isles. The Germanic origin suggested by Titus’ surname (and mentioned later in the document) is unusual, as citizenship was not extended to non-Latin freemen until the edict of Caracalla, some years later. The Legate to whom these letters are addressed was Caius Estulitius lncitatus.”

Brook: Brook loves to read, horror and sci-fi are big draws for him, and he’s suffered through more than his fair share of books with words that don’t belong in HIS modern times. Despite that, nothing he reads with Roman names escapes reminding him of the novels from the Wargames coming out of Great Britain. While the models are too expensive for his liking, the novels are always incredible, and for a majority of the characters Caius Estulitius Incatatus fits perfectly. After reading the foreword however, he feels the weights on his eyes. It’s been a long night and day. He’s accomplished a lot with the help of his new friend, and–and–with his last little bit of consciousness, he closes the book and weakly puts it off to the side, folding both arms on the table to bury his face in and letting everything slip away, if just for awhile.

Hazel: A while passes as Brook slides into that fugue-like state of early sleep that is not sleep–deep enough to feel somewhat rested, light enough to be perplexed that one even went to sleep at all. A steady thumping noise by his head breaks the spell.

Brook: At the very least, it’s not the kind of sleep that allows him to dream. In some ways, it’s a blessing. But hearing the thumps, a vision of something approaching fills his head, each tap the footstep of something dark and–brr. He reacts like someone who just slipped in their dream, shooting straight up. With his hand in the center of his chest, gripping as if something is supposed to be there and staring up at who woke him up.

Hazel: Hazel is holding a copy of Great Expectations, an ironic title under Brook’s present circumstances, and rapping the section of table by his head. Seeing he is awake, the librarian states, “You fell asleep.”

Brook: “Yeah. It’s my thing,” he replies, not even thinking when he says it. “Sorry, that was rude. Narcolepsy. Bane of my existence. Is lunch over?”

Hazel: Hazel isn’t sure what to say to that at first and settles simply for, “I did not find it exceptionally so. But yes, nearly. It doesn’t sound as if this condition is new for you. I’m surprised you have been able to attend regular schooling for as long as you have.”

Brook: Brook slaps his cheeks and shakes it off a bit, taking a deep breath to wake back up. Short as his nap was, it was actually a little refreshing. “I have a job that sticks me in a stone radio tower full of guns all night. I read the books, textbooks, and do the homework after I finish reading off the news. Besides that, it’s willpower I guess.”

Hazel: Realizing she still has the thick book in hand, Hazel sets it down. “I would think night school is better suited to your needs all the same. Homework and assigned readings are a comparatively minor part of school.”

Brook: Brook shakes his head, stretching out his legs under the desk in his process of waking up. “I’m needed. With the fires, psychotic wildlife, and idiot tourists, the rangers are stretched thin. I take the night shift so my mother and her co-worker can sleep. They trust me to handle emergencies. Plus, I get to be a radio host. If you can’t sleep at night, you should tune in. We get all the emergency alerts before anyone else, we can talk on air, and if you have a type of music you love, I’ll put it on.”

GM: “Well, perhaps you’ll luck out and find a way to both possess and eat your cake. But that sounds like a pleasant way to pass the night hours.” Hazel pauses. The thought of talking to lots of strangers over a radio station isn’t the most appealing to her, but Brook’s been nice to her and is sharing something that’s meaningful to him. The socially expected thing to do is reciprocate. “Perhaps I’ll do so this weekend when I can stay up. My musical tastes are diverse and likely to please at least one given segment of the population.”

I’d say tonight, but I’m trying not to get killed by vampires tonight.

Brook: Brook shakes his head a little bit. It isn’t possible most times to have your cake and eat it too, at least not without help. “You don’t gotta call if you don’t want to. The music though? It’s always good to unwind. Though I like to think it’s mostly to keep people company. It can be scary to be alone some nights.”

Especially when you’ve seen a shadow… something.

“We should catch up though. Our parents work pretty close. And seeing all that investigation equipment in your bag? I could use your help with something.”

Hazel: “Expound, and we will see whether I can provide such.”

Brook: Brook is starting to see that it’s better to be straight with this woman, nodding to her. “There was a wolf carcass on Bad Medicine. That’s why I was there. Inside its stomach, there was what was left of a finger, with a wedding ring attached.” After a bit of a pause, he rubs the back of his head a little bashful. “My mother is overworked. I want to help more and this is my jurisdiction, not the county sheriff’s.”

Hazel: Hazel is thankful to see the subject of inquiry is about something non-paranormal this time. Or at least seemingly so. She’s not ruling it out at Bad Medicine, but an unidentified missing ring is a matter that concerns local police. “Certainly. I should be receiving my private investigator’s license in the mail relatively soon. Tell your mother to contact me at,” Hazel provides a phone number, “if she wishes to have the rangers formally enlist my services.”

Brook: Brook isn’t quite sure either, but it was a wolf. They could have gotten it anywhere in town, and looking at the ring? It wasn’t some drifter. “That’s impressive! You’ve already got access to the Chimera to help with that, too. But I actually want to keep it from my mother. With her overworking herself and her pride, she’ll want to do it herself. So far no one’s taken the power from me, so I want to take this on myself. Your dad’s already sending over the county sheriff’s missing person reports. Soo… you help me? I can help you, too.”

Hazel: Hazel slowly takes in the junior ranger’s words after ‘I want to keep it from my mother.’ “And you have a severed finger in your possession. Brook, you need to report it to your mother, as soon as you get home. Actually, no, you should call her immediately. What you’re talking about is against state and federal law. It’s tampering with evidence. Now,” she adds assuringly, “I am happy to help. We just have to do it legally. It’s a significant criminal offense if we don’t. Believe me, your mother does not want you to get in that kind of trouble.”

Brook: Brook’s face doesn’t change listening to her, but she does have a point. “It’s reported, logged, paperwork was filed out by who found it, and it’s in storage. I might not be an awesome student, but at least I’m not a terrible ranger. But what you’re saying, you mean I can’t even look into whose finger it is?”

Hazel: Hazel breathes a sigh of relief. “All right. That’s very good to hear. You simply had me… concerned when you stated you wanted to keep this from your mother. My involvement does need to go through her, in any case–as you’re still a minor and a volunteer, you don’t have discretionary powers to hire third party investigators. Or even to look into the case yourself.” She pauses again and adds, “That may seem tedious and unnecessary, but it is what working in law entails–either as a lawman or a lawyer. As someone whose parents are both, I’m all-too aware.”

Brook: Tedious and unnecessary is right. Volunteer or not, he does as much as he possibly can, he can handle tracking a wolf to a tourist’s carrion. “Well damn. Maybe I’ll have to see if my mother can pass the authority over to me. Until then, the offer is still open. If you need a set of arms, a ride, an animal shot at, I owe you for help with the paper. Especially if you’re still planning to get revenge on that sorry excuse for an English teacher.”

Hazel: “Brook, to clarify, I am willing–and still potentially quite able–to assist your investigation. You merely have to ask your mother whether it is acceptable to involve me in it.”

Brook: “Well I’m glad. Maybe that’ll help me convince her. She’s very proud. One of the strongest people in Witiko Falls.” Though he’s still a little disappointed he can’t go ahead and investigate it on his own. “It might take a small while, though. There are things going on. The fires, the escaped asylum patient, that gas leak at the hospital. Autumn is here, as well. Bears are going to start getting antsy before hibernation.”

Hazel: “I’m certain there are, and I wish you luck with them. If your mother wants to enlist my services, I will be here.” I hope. “As someone whose own mother is also a strong and proud woman, in any case, I have frequently found it prudent to frame offers of assistance as… something other than such.”

Brook: Brook looks her in the eye for a moment and nods. He’s always wondered who her mother is, he only knows her through her father after all. Stepping to the side, he digs out his sketchbook and a pencil from his bag, turning to a fresh page and jotting something down for her, before offering for her to see.

Can we talk after school? You believe me, I know you do.

Hazel: You are being observed.

Four words from a complete stranger. They could be wrong. But it costs nothing to heed them–and could cost much if they’re right and she doesn’t. What a shoddy cover she has maintained, though, if she truly is being observed. Researching vampires and the evil eye in the library–a regrettable action, but one that simply could not be postponed or done elsewhere. But everything else was avoidable. Instantly falling asleep from Leo’s email. Throwing up in the bathroom. Having a panic attack at the word ‘tomorrow.’ If, indeed, Hazel is being watched in the library, her observers have a great deal of unusual behavior to speculate over.

And then Brook, who simply won’t let up over the paranormal. This is the sixth time he’s pressed her? For a moment, she genuinely wonders how any observers would expect her to react to this. Playing dumb? Getting upset? Geez, you even saw me have a goddamn panic attack over this. And I’m supposed to be the socially clueless one?

Hazel looks up from the note and states aloud, “If you have questions about investigative work, you can of course call me at the number I’ve provided.”

Brook: Brook has no idea who or what’s stalking her, but even with her strangeness he can see it. ROSEWATER isn’t something he has to deal with watching him, but there’s something similar that he does. No matter where you go in a forest, it’s safe to assume all eyes are on you. You’re an intruder, an interloper, you’re after their children, their food, their territory, and their mates. In Witiko Falls, you’re prey. Mom, Chet, himself, they’re the ones who understand this more than most. Eyes in every knothole, noses on every boot track, claws in every underbrush. He’s been that scared animal back against a wall. Turning the sketchbook back to himself, he starts a new page, taking a moment to write something and tearing it out of the book to hand to her this time. To keep.

It’s okay to be scared. I am too. Remember it’s easier to stay on a path in a pack. There’s his phone number, his radio frequency, and the address of the ranger station. As well as a rushed doodle of said tower, with what can only be a rifle barrel poking out and the black shape of a T-Rex outside. “I should grab those labels and get started, Ms. Bauman. Gotta tame the Chimera, right?”

Hazel: “Thank you for the radio station number. I will be sure to tune in sometime.” Hazel folds over the portion with the cover-blowing message that an observer could have potentially read, or at least noticed Brook being occupied writing. It looks like that’s her strategy for them, playing knowing but unwilling to stick her nose where it doesn’t belong. Even she couldn’t have possibly missed all of Brook’s attempts to discuss the town’s oddness.

She looks up at the bell.

“Yes, its many heads are quite fearsome. However, you should eat something too.” Brook fell asleep almost as soon as he started reading, leaving little time for food. “Feel free to take your lunch and catalog somewhere in the back. I don’t want the other students to think it’s ok to eat in the library, but what they don’t see won’t hurt them.”

Brook: Brook just gives her an appreciative thumbs up and closes his sketchbook back up, puling everything–including his new book–into the backpack for later. So far the new mysteries are ‘self-bleeding carpet stain’ and ‘new librarian fearing for her life’ today, and they’re only just past lunch. “I’ll go to the front to grab a stack of labels and do just that, then. Thanks for bending the rules for me.”

Hazel: “You’re welcome. One last thing.” Hazel takes the book on Picts and runs the barcode scanner over its label with a pling, registering it as checked out to Brook. “The purpose of our mighty labors.”

Brook: Brook just gives her a small smile and nods, taking it back and securing it. “It’ll take some getting used to having a system of order in here. Might wanna get sensors by the door. Humans are still animals of habit, right?” With that, he packs his lunch back up and swings by the front, getting a rather large stack of labels to vanish into the back with. There’s another class coming in soon, and he’s sure she wants to prepare for a moment.

Hazel: “Humans are prey to the Chimera. Nevertheless, perhaps it would benefit from a greater set of jaws,” the librarian smirks in farewell.

Hazel: Attila Awakens


Thursday noon, 9 October 1998

Hazel: While Brook reads about Severus’ failed conquest, Hazel pulls out her own sack lunch and simultaneously pulls up Lindsay’s thesis on her desktop. Lunch today, meanwhile, is a step up from the usual. Hazel ordered from the hotel’s room service and got a grilled chicken pita, which the menu says has “Gem Lettuce, Heirloom Tomato, Sweet Onions, Feta & Tzatziki Sauce.” A banana smoothie with the eponymous fruit, blueberry, walnut, flax seed, and soy milk serves as a similarly tasty side.

Hazel feels… good. She’s still got a little while to ready Linsday’s thesis, by herself and with a yummy meal. And then there’s the thesis. No, not even the thesis. The author. The knowledge that someone else out there… that someone else has seen some weird things they fear others will consider them insane for. Someone else has shared her experienced. She’s not alone. She isn’t crazy. The first time she thought ‘vampires’, during her stimming… between that and the nightmare, Mom wanting to move away, it was all too much to face. Brook’s question about Bad Medicine tore the lock she’d bolted across her sanity back wide open–but after the contents had time to ferment and stew. And now, seeing that email, reading an actual thesis, a formal academic assertion by someone who’s shared her experiences… Hazel isn’t ready to say “vampires are real” out loud to anyone. She still has no direct empirical evidence to support such a claim. But she is starting to feel a lot less crazy about pondering the question in earnest.

GM: Less crazy, but far from settled–as her research’s still preliminary answers are unsettling.

Hazel: Vampires are real. Allegedly. I’ve already unearthed the most terrible pieces of knowledge I can come across in my research. Something nags at the librarian, though, that she’s tempting fate to think such a thing.

GM: Beginning with Lindsay’s four-hundred plus paged thesis, Beholder of the Eye: A Phenomenological Study of Transcultural Form Constants through the Comparative Use of Phencyclidine, Mescaline, and Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, Hazel discovers that her old flat-mate was investigating whether the seemingly transcultural and transtemporal universality of certain thought forms or form constants perceived in altered states induced by various psychedelics are due to shared evolutionary adaptations in neurophysiology or evidence of a shared subconscious. The final thrust of the paper suggests that the former may be what facilitates the latter.

Yet, most germane to Hazel’s current inquiry is Lindsay’s rigorous literature review on specific transcultural-temporal form constants, including the evil eye. This section also contains a rather lengthy footnote detailing the equally curiously similarity of apotropes for the phenomenon. Ultimately, this research confirms and elaborates upon Hazel’s own research, especially in the discussion section where she describes how the human species have evolved to have brains and sensory organized primed to detect primally dangerous stimuli such as snakes and spiders above other more neutral stimuli such as trees or rocks. She goes further to posit that some of the form constants such as the evil eye might similarly be symptoms or evolutionary adaptions of a species that through generations have become primed to recognize other paranormal threats, but that this priming is subliminal in threshold. Citing psychoanalytic theories and the works of Jung, Lindsay contends that these dangers might be so aversive or psychological terrifying that the the superego blocks what the Id or Shadow perceives, and that psychedelics help break down those subconscious barriers. She concludes by citing and then twisting Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, saying “Some may consider these ‘foolish consistencies to be no more than the hobgoblins of the little minds’, but the evidences presented herein suggest that these consistencies are neither foolish nor small-minded, but rather symptoms of adaptive evolutionary neurodevelopment pursuant to priming our species to recognize the true hobgoblins that have long preyed upon our species. But in this Age of Reason, the mind-altering properties of psychedelics are one of the few keys that open the mind’s eye to that which our species has collectively agreed to shut and repress, but can never truly forget.”

Hazel: The paper’s conclusion seems like a stretch. But by normative standards. Hazel is already accepting some very odd ideas as given facts—and not only does Lindsay know more about psychedelics than she does, the grad student has clearly put a great deal of research into the 400-page-paper.

So, I should get stoned to help fend off my voyeur? I suppose my parents wouldn’t approve. Despite the crack, Hazel doesn’t have it in herself to laugh. The subject matter is simply too serious. And she’ll have her direct empirical evidence tonight, one way or another.

With a good chunk of Linday’s thesis now read, Hazel picks up the phone and calls Uncle Leo. She has some final affairs to set in order before the day is done. With a good many snippets, mostly those not concerning the subject interviews

GM: Hazel hears the phone ring several times before her adoptive uncle picks up the phone. “This is Vice Principal Schoening.”

Hazel: “Hello, Vice Principal. This is Ms. Bauman. I am somewhat late in calling, but would you be available to discuss several matters after school hours?”

GM: There’s a slight rustling of papers, then a pause and an answer. “Of course, Ms. Bauman. Shall I see you in my office at 3:20 pm or do the matters of discussion require a different locale?”

Hazel: “I believe your office shall ably serve, Vice Principal. I will see you then.”

GM: “Till then, Ms. Bauman,” he replies before hanging up.

Hazel: Hazel does likewise.

Hazel: After dealing with her remaining classes for the day and bidding farewell to Brook, Hazel temporarily locks up the library and walks down the hall to her uncle’s office. He expects her, but she knocks twice on the door all the same. She’d hate to have people barging in to her own office without warning.

GM: “Enter,” her uncle replies.

Hazel: Hazel does so, taking a seat when and if she is prompted. Her eyes slowly take in the room’s features. The physics models hanging from the ceiling. The lump of Nazi gold. The wall of graduating Kelpies. “I presume that you have taken precautions against prying eyes and ears. I have encountered no undue problems since our last meeting on account of what was said within this room.”

GM: As last time, Leo rises as she enters, then sits in his chair behind the spartan desk. “One observation pupils of the art soon discover is that we are always being observed.”

Hazel: “I am certain that Landsberg’s theory continues to hold true for such pupils. Nevertheless, I am here to speak of more immediate matters.” Hazel briefly pauses, chewing her thoughts. “You have presented me with a physically impossible optical illusion, made me bleed with a touch, and sent an email attachment that caused me to instantaneously enter REM sleep. I will not inquire whether you believe in phenomena that cannot be explained by scientific laws as they are commonly accepted, for the evidence speaks for itself.”

Hazel pauses again. “It is my wish to inform you that my own investigations into such phenomena may cause me to be… absent from work tomorrow.”

GM: The vice principal leans forward a bit, his eyes intense–maybe even impossibly more intense, but without any hint of reproach.

Hazel: Hazel isn’t sure how to broach this topic. There is no procedure or conversational roadmap for her to follow. In fact, it would probably be in her best interests not to have it at all. But there are interests besides her own to consider.

She’s not sure if she should build up to this more subtly. Finally she states, “The circumstances of my potential absence will not unduly affect the lives of anyone besides myself. May I have your sworn word that you will keep the confidence of our conversation and speak of it to no others?”

GM: Leo considers the request thoughtfully. Then, with great solemnity, he traces a cross upon his own brow as he says, “I swear upon the Rosy Cross to honor the confidence of this conversation hereto and to speak of it to no others without your express permission.”

Hazel: “Thank you, Vice Principal.” Hazel thinks about possible alternatives to this conversation. She really does. She could bury the letter she’s about to pull out and send her parents another automated email informing them where to dig it up, if she doesn’t cancel the electronic missive by tomorrow noon. But if emergency services find her cooling body and contact her parents first–or if her visitor leaves behind no body–and they have no explanation for any of this, or someone sees her burying the letter, or any of a hundred other things goes wrong…

Too much is out of her hands. And in any case. It’s better if she can have an actual person do this. Even if it is an avoidable potential risk to be saying these things out loud. “I am sorry. Asking you to prepare for a potential absence is factually accurate but still somewhat disingenuous.” Hazel is about to explain, then realizes she can just let the evidence speak for itself. She reaches into her purse and pulls out a sealed manilla envelope.

“This contains a last will and testament.” Hazel pauses again, struggling to come up with words for how to proceed. There really is no established protocol here. “My father is… dear to you, is he not?” she manages after a moment, then immediately disregards it as a foolish question. They are relatives, after all, and Leo was always her dad’s idol. Hazel attempts to re-marshal her verbal faculties and then finally states bluntly, “I could die tonight. I wish to make provisions to ease my parents’ pain. I cannot tell them any of this, both for their own safety and the fact they would consider me insane if I explained my reasons. You are the only person I trust who I believe will not.”

GM: “Your trust is appreciated, just as your angst is poignant.” He leans back, pensive. “If you wish to entrust me with your last will and testament, I accept. However, I must ask why you consider your life to be in such peril this night.”

Hazel: Hazel relaxes–marginally–as Leo spares her the necessity of articulating those thoughts. His subsequent question, however, gives her pause. It was inevitable he would ask ‘why.’ But actually saying her reasons out loud, to another person…

“Because I believe a malignant force desires my death. I am preparing to confront it tonight. My death is not a certainty. Merely a possibility. You will not find it necessary to consider the issue of hiring a new librarian until tomorrow, if I do not arrive to work.” She pauses and then awkwardly adds, “I hope you will not have to.” Another pause. “That is to say, I hope to spare you the necessity of having to do so.”

GM: “Which is to say, you hope to survive,” Leo adds.

Hazel: “Yes. I also hope to spare the high school any further inconvenience.”

GM: “At this juncture, that is not my concern.”

Hazel: As if realizing the oddness of the statement, Hazel adds, “I likewise consider it a matter of comparative triviality in the immediate term. My personal survival is of greater importance to me.”

GM: “As is your survival to me,” the vice principal says placidly.

Hazel: “I am pleased that we are of like mind.”

GM: He looks down at the golden glob and hefts it. “I do not know if you have ever seen Shelton Atwood’s full collection, but perhaps he brought in some of his exquisite emperor moths.”

Hazel: “I do not believe that I have had the pleasure. I have seen some individual specimens from his collection, however. ‘Exquisite’ is one of the foremost words I would use to describe them.”

GM: “Yes, I was particularly taken by one display wherein two moths were pinned side by side, both allegedly taken from the same egg-laying. The first was hale and vibrant in its mature splendor. The second though was shriveled, malformed, and pitifully muted in hue in patterning.”

Hazel: “I am certain its poor state made the first specimen’s splendor all the more apparent by comparison.”

GM: “Apparent, but also edifying. When asked about the disparity, Mr. Shelton related that in his haste to obtain the specimen, he helped the second struggling moth escape from its cocoon. Just a solitary tear, but his well-intended action had inadvertently denied the moth the necessary crucible of labor to strengthen its wings and limbs. And without that struggle, its imperial birthright was robbed, and it died soon thereafter, too feeble to live, much less fly.”

Hazel: Hazel nods. “I do not ask you for assistance in escaping my own cocoon, Vice Principal, when you know so little of its particulars. Merely your confidence and promise to tender my last will and… written goodbye to my parents should the worst come to pass.”

GM: Leopold’s brow furrows inwardly, then looks down at the metallic object in his hand. “And yet, the refiner of silver and gold must sit and watch till his reflection emerges in his art, lest it burn to ruin.” He places the possession back upon the table. “You have not asked my help, but I still offer it.”

Hazel: Relief breaks through Hazel’s features like dawn emerging after a long and dark night. But not simply at Leo’s offer. “Your offer means a great deal, Vice Principal. As does your simple belief. In fact, I am hard-pressed to state which means more to me. I confided my initial suspicions with my father and he considered them… flights of fancy. Not unreasonably. But it is still a comfort to simply be… believed by another.”

GM: A slight pause, then, “To clarify, I cannot say what help I might render knowing, as you said, nothing about your suspicions or perceived peril.”

Hazel: “You have been witness to occurrences others would hold as impossible,” Hazel states slowly, half to herself. “Layne Tuttle should be dead. Should have been dead. Was believed to be dead.”

GM: Leo nods. “Should is a pregnant word, inseminated by sensibilities, prejudices, and desires.”

Hazel: Hazel stares at the lump of Nazi gold on her uncle’s desk. She’s told Leo enough, hasn’t she? He’s given his word. Her parents will have a goodbye from her. That’s all she wanted. She’s already said a great deal. After reading Lindsay’s thesis, she’s seriously considering the possibility that…

But saying it out loud. To another person. It’s insane.

Her mouth opens. Finally she states,“I believe it is possible vampires may be real, and that one either desires my death or holds similarly perfidious intentions towards me.”

She adds, as an almost laughable caveat, “I have only circumstantial evidence to support this assertion. It is possible I am incorrect.”

There it all is. Out loud.

GM: Leo stares at Hazel with the inexorable weight of a grey ocean. He does not laugh nor frown for smile. The tension in the room seems so fragile that not even breath dares disturb it. But then Leo stands. He turns away from her, his hands clasped behind his back. Without the intensity of his face boring into her, his slight outline looks like a photo or stature of the man, a mere simulacrum. “That is a most unexpected thing to hear.”

Hazel: A moment passes before Hazel replies. “It was a similarly unexpected thing to contemplate.”

GM: His back still to her, he replies, “Tell me then what you have observed and what led you to this hypothesis.”

Hazel: Hazel is silent at first, out of habit, but she’s laid this card on the table. So she plays out the full hand and relates the observations she has made over the past few days. The many disturbances that have taken place in her home, from the unlocked door to the moved objects to the bizarre microphone recording. The rude awakening on her first day of work, which her father attributed to her sleepwalking and simple stress. Her research into the evil eye, whose symbolism she connected to the fleeting shape she glimpsed past her bedroom window. Not least of the evidence that substantiates her belief in vampires is her “stimming,” which allows her to simply… know things. It sounds absurd. She adds that she has empirically verified the insights granted by this common autistic habit on numerous prior occasions. Nevertheless, she cannot help but dwell on the fact that if she repeated this conversation to either of her parents, they would believe her insane. Anyone would, except someone who’s seen insane and impossible things.

“I will add, once again, this is still a hypothesis. Insufficient evidence exists for me to consider it a theory–much less to argue its truth to others.”

GM: Her uncle remains silent and still as she lays out her ‘evidence’. When she is finished, he asks neutrally, “And what alternative explanations have you considered–and ruled out?”

Hazel: “I have also considered that I am insane. I have not yet fully ruled it out.”

GM: “It is wise to keep an open mind about such things.”

Hazel: “Objectivity is paramount in science. It may also simply be an elaborate hoax or prank. Or perhaps I am not clinically insane, but am overreacting to a great many perfectly explainable, mundane phenomena, and am maintaining too open a mind in lending credence to such hypotheses.”

GM: “Quem deus vult perdere, dementat prius. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make insane,” Leo says, making the translation, but not his meaning, clear.

Hazel: “I have never been a woman of great reverence for gods, Vice Principal. Their wrath is certainly one potential explanation for my potential insanity.”

GM: Leo turns back around and sits, his hands placed almost meditatively upon the desk. “I am sworn not to disclose our discussion, which stymies my ability to help I fear. I have an associate, a physician, who is an expert on these matters. I desire to relate the details of your case to her.”

Hazel: Hazel pauses. “Do you mean a mental health professional, Vice Principal, or a paranormalist? If my hypothesis should be disproven tonight, I would believe it an entirely prudent decision for me to see one of the former.”

GM: “She goes by neither of those titles. But her expertise is marked.”

Hazel: “In matters pertaining to… vampires,” Hazel states slowly.

GM: “She does not use that term, but yes, she is arguably one of the leading experts on human conditions commonly associated with that term.” A slight pause. “I could be discrete in my inquiry. Your name would not need be mentioned. Also, I cannot guarantee she can or will help, but I think we all would be benefited if she were contacted.”

Hazel: Hazel thinks. He’s promised discretion… the first and foremost thing she desires. Her name, not even mentioned. It’s still a potential gamble, but it doesn’t take her long to decide. “Then I will trust your judgment and discretion. You have my profound thanks.” The reward is worth the risk. She needs every edge she can get.

GM: Leo nods slowly and sincerely. “Thank you. Now, can you tell me your intended whereabouts this night, at least from sunset to sunrise? In case I need to reach you.”

Hazel: “I am no expert on social rules, Vice Principal, but it seems far more appropriate for me to thank you.”

GM: “But perhaps premature on both our parts.”

Hazel: Hazel emphatically shakes her head. “Even if you and your associate are unable to provide material assistance, merely to voice my hypothesis aloud to another and not assumed insane is a great comfort. But so far as where I may be reached.”

Hazel gives her uncle a full accounting of where she intends to be for the rest of the evening–library, hospital, home. She provides her landline and cellular phone numbers, adding that while reception in Witiko Falls is terrible, it is likely to be better at the hospital.

GM: Leopold takes out a sheet of paper and writes down not only the numbers but the destinations and approximate times of arrival.

Hazel: Hazel adds that this schedule is very much in flux–she is not certain when her research will be finished, when her mother will get off work (if that’s too much later than when she’s finished, her dad will drive her home before she visits the hospital), or how long affairs at the hospital will take. She promises, however, to periodically call Leo and alert him as to the changes in her whereabouts. And unless some freakish circumstance should conspire otherwise, she will almost certainly be found at home later in the night.

GM: “If I am indisposed, leave a message. Specifically, the number pi, broken up by single digit. If you encounter trouble or need to alter those plans, deviate from the numeric sequence. Do you understand?”

Hazel: “Abundantly, Vice Principal.”

GM: “Your safety and well-being mean a great deal to me.”

Hazel: “As does your regard and concern.”

GM: “Keeping in mind Mr. Shelton’s moth, if there is aid I can and should render, I will.”

Hazel: “I hope that through both our actions–and non-actions–I may emerge from chrysalis as the superior specimen.”

GM: Her uncle rises. Regarding the clock with a meaningful expression, he opens the door for Hazel. “Agere sequitur credere; agere sequitur esse. We act according to what we believe ourselves to be–and with sufficient action and belief, we compel reality’s sure assent.”

Hazel: “This meeting has helped affirm several of my beliefs, Vice Principal, and I hope that reality’s assent will soon follow. Before I take my leave of you, however, there are several minor remaining matters.”

GM: Her uncle shuts the door.

Hazel: Hazel holds up the manilla envelope containing her will. “Although this is primarily intended for my parents, among the items detailed within it are a palm pilot I would like to bequeath to Layne Tuttle–and still intend to, should I survive the night. It is my hope that she will find it a more convenient means of notation that the clipboard and sticky notes she currently employs. Will you give it to her in my place if I am unable?”

GM: Leo takes the package gently. “Of course.”

Hazel: “I have had little time to ponder the paradox we discussed this morning. Nevertheless, that discussion has not changed my mind. If I should not be absent from work tomorrow, I am sure–or at least hope–it would be much to Layne’s pleasure to end the week working alongside me as a library aide.”

GM: “Arrangements will be made.”

Hazel: “Excellent. It is also my desire to inform you that I have not forgotten our experiment concerning Martin Swenson. Should I survive the night, it is my hope to observe the subject in the field this weekend.”

GM: “I appreciate being updated on your progress.”

Hazel: “It is my desire to set as many affairs in order as I may.” It’s all-too true. Hazel’s mind is ratcheting over the place like a BB pellet. There are just so many little details she wants to get just right. Dying would be remarkably inconvenient.

“It is also my belief that Layne Tuttle harbors… romantic feelings for you. It is my further belief that it would be in her best interests for you to gently dissuade her of them.”

GM: “Your beliefs are most intriguing, but appreciated nonetheless. Perhaps we shall have time later to discuss what led you to that diagnosis and prognosis.”

Hazel: Hazel feels a bit of red rising in her cheeks at the subject. In a way, though, she’s thankful for it. When all is said and done, she has a life she wants to fight for and come back to, with all its attendant struggles and minor embarrassments. “A later time is likely the most prudent one to… discuss the subject in further depth.”

GM: Leo scrutinizes his niece’s blushing like an astronomer observing the photopic evidence of a distant stellar birth or death. After a silent mental calculation, he replies: “Yes, at the present moment, addressing Todestrieb takes precedence–even if its antithesis, Lustprinzip, remains highly relevant.”

Hazel: “As does my own over another’s.” Hazel clears her throat. “I believe that is… everything. The envelope you possess contains written instructions which provide guidance on a number of minor matters pertaining to my will’s dissemination. It remains my hope, however, that it will simply gather dust within an otherwise forgotten filing cabinet or other storage space of yours.”

GM: Leopold traces a cross in front of his niece, then opens the door. “I will see you then, inter spem et metum. Between hope and fear.”

Hazel: “One makes preparations for the worst even as one hopes for the best.” Hazel rises from her seat and makes her way to the door. “Good day, Vice Principal.”

GM: “And a transformative night, Empress,” he says, closing the door. Back out in the office, Agnes’ good eye darts up to Hazel’s face–particularly her brow. The old secretary’s face instantly relaxes. She waves to Hazel, then goes back to her phone call–on the green device.

Hazel: I’m not sure if that’s a good omen, but I’ll take it as one. Hazel strides back to the Chimera–and the long-due answers that await within its belly.

Brook: Skin Deep


Thursday afternoon, 9 October 1998

GM: Right after school ends, the faculty parking lot remains full of vehicles as most staff are still inside wrapping up their paperwork, grades, and curriculum plans. Mr. Epstein, however, stands near a military gray-green jeep. He is dressed in hunting camouflage. “Brook,” the tall man says, “So good of you to be punctual.”

Brook: Brook doesn’t mess around today. Essay is handed in pretty and perfect to the office like he was supposed to, and now it’s time to pay the piper in his detention. Coming up into the parking lot, it’s not entirely clear to him what he’s going to be doing, but if what his math teacher is wearing has any bearing on what it is, it might not be so bad.

“It’s detention, I’d just get more of it if I wasn’t on the dot, wouldn’t I?” Flashing the teacher a smile as he walks up, Brook stars to stretch out his legs, ready for whatever the teacher has in store for him.

GM: The widow-peaked Mr. Epstein doesn’t immediately answer, but checks his watch. After a moment, he adds, “We’ll give him five more minutes.”

Nelson, however, doesn’t keep them waiting that long.

Brook: Brook nods, wondering if it’s very prudent to wait on someone that he assumes isn’t going to come because of their little talk. But lo and behold, here he comes! Though the one there actually on time doesn’t react to with anything but finishing his stretch and looking up expectantly at Mr. Epstein. Military or not, he’s ready! This might even be refreshing.

GM: Brook’s peer shuffles into the parking lot, his letter-jacket thrown over his sports jersey, his hands in his jean pockets, hip jutting out like a pouty lip, a cowboy hat covering his face in shadow. He peaks up at Brook once, real quick like rabbit checking on a coyote.

“Nelson,” Mr. Epstein says, “Good of you to join us.”

Nelson mumbles something noncommittal and glances around the parking lot.

“All right, boys, climb into the jeep. We’re driving to the shooting range to prep things for the Triggernometry Club.” He climbs into the driver’s seat, turning on the jeep. “Sorry for the tight squeeze, but the backseat is full.”

As Brook and Nelson cram into the tight-fitting front seat, they can’t help but press up against each other–no matter how hard Nelson tries to squirm. The jock takes off his hat, propping it atop his squished knees and tries to mumble another apology.

The math teacher eyes the awkward exchange, but says nothing. “Seatbelts, boys,” Mr. Epstein reminds them, prompting another more awkward series of fumbling grabs, butt-shuffling, and torso twisting.

“Sorry,” Nelson mutters again, his face beet-red and burning.

Brook: Awkward is one word for it. Brook has another. Hilarious. Despite keeping a straight face, everything happening in the context of knowing Nelson’s secret makes it almost comical. Despite that, he doesn’t agitate the issue, scooting into the best position that he can so that they don’t have to be too close of butt buddies. White men turn red, but Brook is already such, hiding the slight flush on his face. “Stop apologizing, let’s just get it over with,” he mutters to Nelson, flashing him a quick thumbs up with his arm out the window.

“Mr. Epstein, are we setting up a project on bullet drop or something?”

GM: Nelson just stares forward, trapped between Mr. Epstein and Brook. Their teacher, however, perks up at the question. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, Brook, that you’re acquainted with firearms being you volunteer with the NPS. We do study bullet-drop of course, but today you two will be helping me dismantle an old shed. The club plans on using the old lumber to create targets, blinds, and obstacles.”

“Have you ever considered joining us, Brook?” the math teacher asks as he drives them out past fields of fat grain and pumpkins. “For the Triggernometry Club, that is.”

Brook: Poor Nelson. If he weren’t such an ass Brook might feel sorry for him. For now, it’s merely a question of how he’s going to stay awake in a car without his friends barking in his ear, digging fingernails into his palm again to stave off the beast known as sandman. That’s how he got in trouble in the first place.

“I’m sorry Mr. Epstein, but I can’t say if I can even join a club. Despite the junior status, the rangers are stretched thin. I man the radio tower from dusk till dawn. Handle emergencies. Besides, I’m more a hunter than a target shooter. Sorry.” Besides, the guns Brook fires aren’t practical to fire again and again. It hurts to let loose a round from the guns he takes on a serious hunt.

GM: Mr. Epstein takes the rejection in stride, nodding. “I appreciate your commitment and civic duty, Brook. If you reconsider, let me know.”

Nelson seems to swallow whatever snide remark he would usually make. After all, he’s outnumbered, trapped, and flanked. The rest of the trip passes in awkward silence.

Brook: Brook can almost feel that remark coming, but when it doesn’t come? What silence! It’s incredible to see Nelson of all people so put under the spell of fear around him. Awkward as it is, the silence is fucking golden.

GM: The silence, like the drive, ends when they reach an abandoned farmhouse whose fields lay fallow. The white-washed home is rotting and weathered. A single dead tree sits in front while a small outhouse stand not far away. The edges of the Kaniksu rise in the distance.

“Here we are, boys,” Mr. Epstein says as he steps out of the jeep.

farmhouse.png

Nelson climbs out and cracks his back and shoulders with loud relief. He stares at the main structure. “You expect us to dismantle an entire house for detention?”

“No, Nelson,” the teacher says, “That would take far too much time and require a level of skill that requires proper training. No, for detention, you will dismantle this smaller structure.” He points to the outhouse.

“The shitter?” Nelson asks perhaps even more incredulously.

“Bridle your tongue, Nelson.”

“But you said we were busting down a shed?”

“Yes, an outhouse is also known as a water-closet or shed. Come on then,” the man adds, “The sooner you finish, the sooner you go home.” He then instructs both sophomores to haul out the various demolition equipment: saws, sledges, claw hammers, goggles, gloves, and tarps. Once again, Brook proves both a quick and skilled student, and it is not long before Mr. Epstein leaves Brook in charge as the latter goes bird-watching with military-grade binoculars, out by the pines.

Nelson grouses a bit, but once the math teacher is truly far, far out of each shot, the jock speaks up. “I apologized to Dan. Like you told me to.” Thankfully the outhouse has been abandoned for some time, but the stench is still revolting, particularly as the two boys start to sweating with heavy labor. “I… I said I was sorry,” Nelson repeats, unable to look at Brook as he pauses mid-saw.

Brook: Brook doesn’t whine; shit is the least he has to deal with in his line of work. When they have full stomachs, most things void their bowels when they die anyway. Unfortunately, he’s also wearing one of his more prized shirts, having wanted to look nice for school today. Pulling it off and tossing it into the back of the jeep, he gloves up and tosses on his goggles, getting to work. Though of course not without a roll of the eyes at Nelson’s gripping.

But finally the work begins, Brook takes to the claw hammer and starts ripping out old nails, knowing they need the boards for targets, leaving Nelson to do whatever he wants for now. That’s when the teacher walks away and things come to a head. Danny. Yeah, he’s going to have some fucking questions when they meet up today. Panting lightly from the work hauling and yanking away the boards, he starts to feel that glow in his gut again. Nelson really is hanging off of his approval now. It’s strange, but in a sick way? Incredible.

“Nelson, I’ve been holding onto those fucking pictures for months. I never planned on using them unless you gave me a reason. Fucking with June in front of Danny to goad a reaction?” Brook finishes his sentence with a sharp look, all while his strong arms rip a board off the frame of the biffy. “Why do you think I kept it a secret? Why I’m GOING to keep it a secret, if you don’t mess with my friends?”

GM: Nelson stands there, saw stuck halfway into a plank, his chest huffing, his sawdust-plastered face flush with exertion and emotion. The JV football player, who shed his yet to be lettered jacket but kept on his jersey, peers over his shoulder at his half-naked peer. In the shed’s dim lights, the young man’s anisocoria-touched pupils are large black pools.

“I… I don’t know. Because you’re…” he says, starting over, but then shakes his head, flicking sweat and sawdust out of his short-razored hair. “I don’t know.”

Yet, as Brook regards his conflicted peer, the sharp-eyed ranger cadet spots two rather disturbing shapes in the reportedly abandoned outhouse. The first sits trampled in some weeds: a loop buckle attached to a strip of torn fabric. Once white, the fabric strip is dirty, fouled with dark stains that almost obscure black stenciled letters painted on its underside. They read: STATE PSYCHIA, before ending abruptly with the tear. The other ‘shape’ is on the lower edge of the wall beside the buckle: an inverted pentagram hand-drawn relatively recently in excrement. Similarly finger-painted letters encircle the sigil: GIVE THE DEVIL HIS DUE.

Brook: “Because being First nation can suck, Nelson. Because of comments like the one that got you here. Soon as people find out you’re gay? You’ll have to deal with the same thing your entire life. I don’t–”

Brook opens his mouth to keep talking before he spots it all. Ripped state psych cloth, black magic symbols done with the right hand. Though the part that most disturbs him? It’s recent. The hunter doesn’t say a word, slowly leaning down and grabbing the buckle and fabric, shoving it into a back pocket despite what it might be stained with, and grabs Nelson’s wrist.

“Nelson. Someone is here with us. We’re going back to the jeep. Now. Grab all the tools you can carry,” he hisses, voice quiet and spooked. Grabbing up his hammer and a few other tools, he walks quickly to the jeep, arms and shoulders rigid and flexed. He’s on guard; they need the teacher here.

He gets to the jeep and curses at the empty ignition, shooting looks back at the shed and shifting through the jeep, looking if the old war dog brought some kind of firearm. Brook shakes his head. He should have stopped at his truck and got his weapon.

GM: Nelson doesn’t argue or drag his feet–at least not till they’re back in the jeep. “What the freak’s happening, Brook? Who’s here?” the jock asks, clearly convinced that something or someone is spooking the generally unflappable ranger cadet. His eyes scan the weed-overgrown field and farmhouse as he hefts a sledgehammer.

Brook’s suspicions, at least about the ‘old war dog’, prove correct, when the teen finds a Vietnam-issue M1911 secured by electric tape underneath the driver’s seat. The single-action, semi-automatic, magazine-fed, recoil-operated pistol is loaded with .45 ACP cartridges. “Shit!” Nelson exclaims as Brook hefts the side-arm.

Brook: Brook scans the structures most of all, peeking up in his search for a weapon until he finally finds one. Safety off, he pulls the slide and checks the chamber. Loaded. Their teacher is ready, and now so is Brook. Letting go of the slide, it snaps back in fluid military action of one of the most well-made and popular man-killers of the century. Bust a bear with a bull barrel, kill a commie with a colt, as they say. Brook slides to the side of the jeep he’s told Nelson to get to and puts a hand on his shoulder.

“In the outhouse. I found a belt buckle and cloth from a psych ward, and a pentagram drawn in shit. It was fresh. Home room announcements. I read them over the radio last night too. The mental case escapee,” he starts, turning the jock to look behind them. “Watch our backs, in case he’s not in the shed. I’m going to fire at it. Teacher comes running to get us out of here. Together. Agreed?”

GM: No longer in the outhouse, Brook’s mind still burns with the crude pentagram. Having scoured books on sacred geometry to interpret and inspire his phantasmagoric artwork, Brook immediately recognizes the invented pentagram as a sigil of black magic or bad medicine, particularly one tied to Satanism. Most occultists deem an upward pointing or regular pentagram as an essentially ‘good’ depiction of spirit presiding over the four elements of matter.

However, those same occultists, Brook knows, believe that a reversed pentagram, with two points projecting upwards, is a symbol of evil and attracts sinister forces because it overturns the proper order of things and demonstrates the triumph of matter over spirit. He especially recalls one book calling it the “Flaming Star, which, when turned upside down, is the hieroglyphic sign of the goat of Black Magic, whose head may be drawn in the star, the two horns at the top, the ears to the right and left, the beard at the bottom. It is the sign of antagonism and fatality. It is the Goat of Lust attacking the heavens with its horns, a sign execrated by initiates.”

Those disturbing thoughts are shaken as Nelson tightly grips his large sledgehammer and nods. “I’m with you, Brook. I play Guard, remember? I’ve got you covered.”

Brook: Crude, but if someone is crazy enough to write something in their own shit, they’re crazy enough to mean what they write. Brook nods over to Nelson and tells him to cover his ears for the shot before taking a deep deep breath to scream at the farmhouse,

“Federal Park Rangers Department, motherfucker!”

Aiming in one of the windows, the young man squeezes the trigger and feels the pin hit before the entire thing kicks, slinging ol’ American lead into the shelter. Pitiful compared to his baby back at school. There it is, though, the shot that starts everything. The wait, the teacher running back, the hunt. Wherever this psycho is, he’s here.

The Sheriff’s Department needs to get here, and NOW.

Hazel: Attila Awakens


Thursday afternoon, 9 October 1998

GM: I have to know.

Such are the first words to cross the librarian’s mind as she re-enters her demesne. She’s attended to enough… she won’t call them minor matters, for they are important, with Uncle Leo. But they aren’t her obsession.

I have to know.

Her hands fly across shelves as she pulls down books and pulls up Linday’s thesis. She knows her nocturnal voyeur’s nature. She knows what it has attacked her with. But she has so many further questions. There are so many gaps in her knowledge she must fill.

I have to know.

GM: Ipsa scientia potestas est.

Hazel: She doesn’t have any choice. It’s come for her. It’s invaded her home. It’s attempted to afflict her with a dark curse.

I have to know.

A voice in the back of her head still tells her that Lindsay wouldn’t–didn’t want to know. Not this much. Not as much as she wants to. Needs to.

I have to know.

Hazel’s heart thumps in her chest as her hands fly across pages, as her fingers scroll down the computer screen. The truth is, being persecuted by this thing is an excuse. She doesn’t care that it’s after her–not a primal, heart-deep level. A vampire. The evil eye. Evidence of the supernatural. Answers. Not mere rumors and heresay. Hard, empirical evidence. That everything she’s suspected and chased for all her life could be real. Could it?

I have to know.

This is a scientific discovery. This is what gives her life meaning, in lieu of the graduate studies she never pursued. This is why she came back to Witiko Falls. She can’t turn aside from the course she’s on any more than she could have avoided the car crash that first brought her to the town. She’s strapped in and can only watch as she careens towards her final destination at break-neck speed, tires screeching on asphalt. It’s a hunger, a thirst, deeper than man’s need for simple biological fuel. It’s a need for answers. For purpose. For some explanation to it all.

I. HAVE. TO. KNOW.

GM: The Chimera unfolds itself like a poisoned flower. Hazel breathes in its heady vapors. Deeply. Ipsa scientia potestas est. Her knowledge grows–as does her power. Reading over Lindsay’s thesis, she is struck by the similarities in the ethnological interviews. Beyond the drug-induced perceptions of common form constants, there are reoccurring elements in the background phenomenologies. They are subtle–perhaps so subtle that only one afflicted with the same breed of madness can perceive it. But after all, collective psychosis is a primary theme of the manuscript–and the more Hazel reads, the more she must wonder if it is contagious. Again and again, the interviewees describe the sense of being watched, even stalked. But only at night. They describe minor episodes of either explicit terror and anguish or equally indescribable ecstasy, accompanied by blackouts, and followed by spells of weakness and fatigue.

Hazel: Alarmingly similar to some of her own symptoms. Her parents would explain it all away and believe her insane if she shared any of this. But the more she reads, the more distant a concern sanity becomes.

GM: In the unabridged notes, Lindsay describes how these ‘episodes’ are consistent, almost word for word, with those describing attacks by a transcultural-temporal class of folklore entities. There is an embedded copy of Munch’s painting, The Vampyren:

Vampyren.jpg

While other notes describe similarities or alternative classes of entities potentially related to other form constants, the note continues by citing several books describing ethnological cognates of the vampire. Those references prove to be quite helpful to the researcher. As she peruses those titles from the Chimera’s bounty, Hazel is more forcibly reminded that notions of vampiric entities have existed for millennia. Cultures such as the Mesopotamians, Hebrews, Ancient Greeks, and Romans are glutted with tales of malevolent things which can only be described as the ethnological precursors to or cognates of modern vampires. Shtriga, vrykolakas, strigoi, zeher, vetālas, piśāca, estries, stirges, xortdan, ramanga, asanbosam, adze, and more. Their names are as varied as their cultural progenitors are widespread, but the core folklore remains the same.

tracta.jpg

Reading over several centuries-old dissertations on vampirology, she comes to several preliminary conclusions. The fact that the Chimera even has copies of seventeenth and eighteenth century dissertations on vampirology is in of itself telling. And disturbing. But the attached translations of Philippe Rohr’s 1697 essay “to the dead who chew their shrouds in their graves”, as well as Otto’s 1732 and Ranft’s 1734 dissertations are chilling. Not simply due to their subject matter, but in the manner in which all three writers attempt to provide empirical proof that vampires are not mere illusions wrought by unhinged minds. Hazel can almost hear the urgent, fervent need of these long-dead men as each one seems to proclaim as she herself does, “If only I were mad! If only…”

Then there is the 1732 dissertation by the anonymous “Doctor Weimar” which discusses the theological implications of vampiric non-putrefaction. She reads translated copies of Johann Christoph Harenberg’s 1733 treatise on vampirism and the Marquis d’argent Boyer’s citation of local cases. The latter in particular is chilling due to the verbatim similarities found in Lindsay’s ethnological interviews–and as strange as it is for Hazel to be reading the Marquis’ words, she assumes it would be even stranger for Lindsay to have had access to such an obscure, antique text.

She reads from Voltaire, who though was critical of Dom Augustine Calmet’s 1751 Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants, nonetheless wrote in his Philosophical Dictionary that “these vampires were corpses, who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living, either at their throats or stomachs, after which they returned to their cemeteries. The persons so sucked waned, grew pale, and fell into consumption; while the sucking corpses grew fat, got rosy, and enjoyed an excellent appetite. It was in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia, Austria, and Lorraine, that the dead made this good cheer.”

Reviewing these and other documents, Hazel comes to the hypothesis that these things, which the term vampires may be used to crudely describe, seem to belong to a vast class of entities that have long haunted humanity. Her selection of the term ‘class’ is not casual either, as the literature suggests that there are, despite common similarities, enough differences to suggest taxonomic distinctions suggesting related, but distinct orders, families, genera, and species. Furthermore, her research leads her to believe that her own nachzehrer belongs to a particular ‘species’ known in the Romanian tongue as the Nesuferitu, which when translated means the “Insufferable or Repugnant One.” In contrast to the beautiful yet somehow related Necuratu (whose etymology resembles an even older reference to the Nictuku), the Nesuferitu, or its more Anglicized version, the Nosferatu is said to be a being drawn to and repelled by beauty, being that their damned existence is one where that beauty, and its freely given sensual pleasures, are forever denied.

Digging deeper, Hazel finds excerpts of Gerard’s 1885 article as well as Schmidt’s 1866 monograph detailing the Nosferatu’s ability to disguise itself, its inhuman strength, its power to command animals and vermin, its predilection for blood, and its penchant or obsession with beauty and sex. Older, nigh-prehistoric sources attribute similar powers to a group of vampiric terrors known as νοσοφόρος in Old Church Slavonic and its own protolanguage before it.

Frustratingly, reliable sources on efficacious apotropaics and destructive measures remain elusive. Or better said, less than conclusive–which Hazel concludes is less due to sloppy scholarship and more due to the diversity of vampires, nosferatu included, as well as their sheer puissance. She is reminded of what proto-humans must have known about saber-tooth tigers: they are murderously dangerous, love our flesh, and we have few means to escape their predation.

Still, Hazel’s research does uncover certain common threads that all hope is not abandoned. Beyond their unequivocal vulnerability to sun and flame, Nosferatu can be harmed by stakes driven through their heart. The ‘legends’ diverge on whether the stake must be made of iron or wood, particularly hawthorn, or whether any substance will do if driven into their undead hearts. Otherwise, their weaknesses, beyond their endemic repugnancy, are idiosyncratic. Which would leave most researchers mired.

But not Attila. Perhaps it is something she gleaned from her prolific reading or maybe a psychotic, if still prescient echo of her ‘stimming’. Or maybe it is a flash of insight born of her not-so tangental research into Leopold’s use of the terms Todestrieb and Lustprinzip. Perhaps it is a combination of all of the above, but an old headline bursts into her brain, TERROR KILLS LOCAL TUNNEL OF LOVE.

The old memories come like a flood.

Sunday morning, 19 November 1978

GM: Hazel is newly four years old, for today is her birthday. As she stumbles out of bed, she hears her recently married mother and ‘daddy’ talking in the kitchen of their new house, the one right next to Gramps and Nana and their wooden house filled with spirit-chickens, goblins, and gnomes.

Hazel: Hazel’s tiny feet hit the floor with a thump. It took a while for her to open up to this former stranger and accept him as her daddy, but it has been a year. She tawdles out of her bedroom, curious what her parents are saying. She hasn’t put on any clothes.

GM: The delicious smell of fried eggs, sausage links, and fresh-squeezed orange juice fills the homely kitchen.

Hazel: She follows her nose.

GM: It leads her to her mother sitting at the table, blowing on a cup of steaming coffee, as she reads a newspaper. “Terror kills local tunnel of love.” Dressed in an autumnal warm French terry-cloth nightgown, the younger, less time-worn and wrinkled Lydia looks up at her husband as he works his magic on the griddle. “Seriously, honey, this sounds like a tabloid headline, not a front page article announcing a girl’s murder and the closing of an amusement park.”

Hazel: Hazel stops where she’s at, stares and listens, her presence unannounced.

GM: Hazel’s stepfather is already dressed in his press-ironed deputy uniform. His back turned to both his new wife and yet undetected then-stepdaughter, Harvey flips an egg before answering, “We don’t know that it’s a homicide. It could have just been an accident tha–”

Lydia interrupts him, “But of all the bad luck, right before her birthday. You know she’s going to be crushed, Harvey. We promised her the teacups. She doesn’t do well with change.”

Harvey turns off the grill, and sighs. He sets down the spatula, “Lydia, ‘crushed’ is what the Sweeneys are feeling right now.” He turns to put two comforting, strong hands on his wife’s shoulders. “Hazel will jus–” And that’s when he sees her.

Hazel: Hazel is still just standing there, naked and staring.

GM: Harvey’s face splits into a huge grin as he hunkers down. “Hey little naked rugrat. Happy birthday!” He holds out his hands, as if expecting her to run into his arms for a hug.

Hazel: Hazel instead ambles over to the dining table and climbs up one of the chairs. She reaches down and starts eating eggs off her mother’s plate with her bare hands. She’s hungry.

GM: Lydia gives a conciliatory pat on her husband’s hand. She then turns to her daughter, lightly smacking her hand. “Birthday or not, Hazel, you know the rules.”

Hazel: Using utensils is a chore with her motor control. Bits of egg still slip through her fingers and land over the table and floor.

GM: “You eat from your plate. With utensils.” She takes back her plate, stroking her daughter’s hair.

Hazel: Hazel keeps eating the bits of egg already in her tiny hands.

GM: “Also, dear, we wear clothes.”

“It’s called a birthday suit,” Harvey quips.

Lydia shoots him a look.

“What? You didn’t mind wearing it this morning?”

Lydia’s look crumbles under his ‘aw shucks’ grin and handsome features. Her lips curl into a smile. “Go get her plate, my hunky-man.”

Hazel: The innuendo goes over the much younger and hungrily preoccupied Hazel’s head.

GM: Lydia then turns back to her daughter. “Hazel.” She raises a finger to catch Hazel’s eye, her own plate no longer in reach. “Hazel.”

Hazel: “I am hungry!” Hazel declares as the plate vanishes.

GM: “Utensils.”

Hazel: “I am hungry!” she repeats, louder.

GM: Lydia takes the pointing finger and touches Hazel’s toddler-sized fork. “Utensils,” her mother repeats. “Utensils first, then food.”

Hazel: Hazel looks across the table, her mother’s presence seemingly forgotten. She then climbs on top of it after several tries, crawls over to the plate, and starts eating a sausage. Grease dribbles down her chin and over the tablewood.

GM: Lydia sighs but does not give up. Instead, she yanks the plate back, stands, and draws Hazel’s attention to her finger by pointing at the food. “Hazel. If you want the food, you have to use utensils.” She points to the fork.

Hazel: Hazel doesn’t look at her mother. Or the fork. She just reaches after the plate and grabs at another sausage.

GM: She doesn’t even get close. As her mother, now standing, plate in hand, calmly raises it out of reach. “Hazel. Utensils.” She points at the fork.

Harvey, meanwhile, plops down a carefully arranged plate in front of his stepdaughter. Two fried eggs resemble eyes, and sausage links form a smile, with a dab of ketchup like a clown’s nose in the middle. “Here you go, birthday girl!”

“Harvey!” Lydia snaps.

Hazel: Hazel doesn’t look at her mother when the plate withdraws, but continues to stare at the sausage. Her mouth opens as if to repeat the familiar refrain of “I’m hungry!” but as Harvey presents the plate, it just hangs open for a moment. She doesn’t meet his eyes either as she hungrily picks up a sausage link and resumes snarfing it down.

GM: He rustles her hair, laughing at the quasi-feral child’s antics.

“You’re spoiling her,” Lydia says, her jaw set.

The then-nineteen-year-old deputy smiles as her dances behind his bride and hugs her around her waist with his muscular arms. “That’s my job, to spoil the ladies of my life.” He kisses her cheek. Lydia smiles briefly, but then her jaw and brow tighten.

Hazel: Hazel snarfs down more sausage. She pauses briefly to belch.

GM: “Pick your battles,” Harvey says, tapping the newspaper meaningfully. Lydia considers the deteriorating battlefield and the upcoming war, and decides to fold on the former. She regards her half-eaten plate–or the half eaten by her messy-fingered daughter and passes it to Harvey. “Very well.”

Harvey takes the plate and eats the rest of it, as both of Hazel’s parents sit down to join her. “I’m glad the clown tastes yummy,” Harvey says to his soon to be adopted stepdaughter. He slides her a sippy-cup filled with orange juice. Lydia regards the newspaper and its photo for a long moment.

Hazel: Hazel is still sitting on the table. As the cup is passed she lifts it to her mouth and takes a gulp, a single orange stream running down her bare chest.

GM: “Oh for heaven’s sake,” Lydia says, wiping Hazel’s mouth, “You’d think you spent the last four years in a kennel.”

Harvey laughs, “I’ve always wanted to have a puppy.”

Lydia rolls her eyes, but can’t quite repress a smile. “Both of you are hopeless.”

Hazel: “What is a birthday suit?” Hazel abruptly asks, seizing upon an earlier conversational thread.

GM: Harvey chuckles.

“It’s an expression, dear,” Lydia answers. “It means being naked. Like you are now,” she adds with the tiniest hint of exasperation.

Hazel: Her question answered, Hazel looks back down at her plate and picks up a piece of egg.

GM: “Now, Hazel,” her mom continues, “After breakfast, you are going to have a bath. Daddy got called into work this morning.”

Hazel: Hazel doesn’t look up from her plate. “Why?”

GM: Harvey looks at Lydia, unsure what he’s supposed to say. Lydia takes a deep breath, then replies, “There was an accident at the amusement park. Daddy has to go because somebody was hurt. He has to make sure it doesn’t happen again. His job is to protect people. Make them safe.”

“But, dear–,” she says trying to keep Hazel’s gaze, “–because of the accident, the amusement park is closed today. Maybe for a long time.”

Hazel: Keeping the four-year-old’s gaze proves a difficult task. Hazel doesn’t yet understand the importance of maintaining eye contact. She does, however, finally stop eating at her mother’s news.

GM: “Do you understand, dear? We can’t go to the amusement park today.”

Hazel: “You said we were going,” Hazel states as her gaze wanders to somewhere along her mother’s placemat.

GM: Harvey takes Lydia’s hand. “We’re sorry, sport. Really.”

Hazel: “You said we were going,” Hazel repeats.

GM: Lydia inwardly sighs, then answers, “Yes, we said we were going. But because of the accident, the park is closed. No one can go, including us.”

Hazel: “You said we were going!” It’s the same words, but Hazel’s voice is louder this time. She addresses her mother’s OJ glass.

GM: “I’m sorry, dear. Sometimes big things happen, and we have to change plans.”

“But we’ll still do lots of fun things today!” Harvey adds.

“That’s right,” Lydia says, “We’ll still do your cake and presents just like we planned.”

Hazel: The change. They said–they said–Hazel abruptly starts crying as she balls her fists. “Y-you s-said we we-re g-GOING!”

GM: Harvey is at a loss of words, confusion clearly painted on his clean-shaven face. Lydia’s expression might flash her new husband a ‘told you so’ look if it weren’t bracing for the escalating temper tantrum.

Hazel: The still-sobbing four-year-old tilts her head back and emits a high, ear-splitting scream as if to condemn it all. “EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!”

GM: Her mother stands. “That’s enough! Hazel! Stop it!”

Harvey looks between his wife and stepdaughter, back and forth, before getting up and putting his arms around Hazel. “It’s okay, we’ll go.”

“What?!” Lydia asks, clearly shocked.

Hazel: It takes a moment for everything to process and her stepfather’s words to make sense to Hazel, but the scream finally tapers off. She’s still sniffling as she looks back down at her own plate.

GM: Her pats her, still hugging her. “We’ll go. How’s that sound?” he asks the seemingly pacified toddler.

Hazel: “You said we’d go,” Hazel repeats in odd but apparent confirmation, as if the original plans haven’t been disrupted after all.

GM: “That’s right,” he says, his mis-matched pupils holding hers. “We did, and so we will.”

Hazel: “We’ll go,” Hazel states.

GM: “Harvey!” Lydia gasps in anger and confusion.

“We’ll go,” Harvey repeats, then stands to walk over to his older wife.

Hazel: “You said we’d go,” Hazel repeats again, as if that’s the end of the matter.

GM: “Yep, and so we’ll go,” her stepdad says, turning back around. “But you better eat all your breakfast, so you’ll be real strong to turn that teacup.”

Hazel: Hazel looks back down at her plate. And then, if Lydia’s day wasn’t already confounding enough, she picks up her fork and makes a few stabs at the remaining bits of egg.

GM: Then, in a much quieter voice, Harvey turns back to his wife and says, “It’s okay, this badge doesn’t just say ‘to protect’, it also says ‘to serve’, and right now, I’m going to use it to serve my family by getting you all into the park.”

Lydia shakes her head but keeps her voice down as she replies, “But the park is closed and-”

“Yes, but all she likes doing is the tea-cups, remember? I’ll get Mr. Atwood to fire it up, and then you two can leave.”

“But-”

“Without all the crowds, she’ll love it!”

Hazel: The talk of ‘crowds’ goes over the preoccupied Hazel’s head, though Harvey’s words will prove all-too correct. She raises the fork to her mouth and takes a bite of ketchup-lathered egg.

GM: “Look, we get her a bag of cotton candy, and we let her ride the tea cups till she pukes. Everybody wins. And then–,” he says putting his arms around Lydia and pulling her in tightly, “–she’ll be so tuckered out, she’ll take a long nap, and maybe I can check out your birthday suit again, hmm?”

Lydia mock-swats him, but then gives him a big kiss. “My hunk.”

“I love you, Lydia,” he says reciprocating with a kiss of his own.

“I love you too.”

Hazel: After finishing the last of her egg and sausage, Hazel takes a long drain of her OJ and burps.

GM: In front of Hazel, the local morning edition sits, its front page dominated by a picture of the entrance to the amusement park’s underground haunted house ride: the Scaredy Cat Club. The attraction’s aboveground entrance is shaped like a black mouth of a fanged, evil-eyed black cat. The photo’s headline reads, TERROR KILLS LOCAL TUNNEL OF LOVE.

Thursday afternoon, 9 October 1998

GM: Back in the present-day Chimera, the vivid recollection of that headline and the photo are like burning flares in an adult Hazel’s mind. Of course, as a four-year-old she didn’t read the headline or its body, but now, in the library with its microfiche archive of old local newspapers, it’s all too easy to locate. She knows the date, after all.

Hazel: She knows the date. She knows the day. She knows the park. All she doesn’t know is what happened there. But as the puzzle pieces click in her memory, that fact is about to change. Terror. Killing. In the love tunnel. It’s completely consistent with her research.

GM: Reading over the microfiched article, Hazel learns that the cause of the old amusement park’s closure can be traced to the death of none other than Marilyn Sweeney. Glad she followed her hunch, Hazel fishes the photo she took from the Sweeney House.

Hazel: Whose parents’ home she is now living in. It can’t be a coincidence. Can it?

GM: With the photo outside of its cracked frame, Hazel sees the handwritten date: November 18, 1978. Returning to the article and several other related sources, Hazel discovers that the Scaredy Cat Club was a prominent feature of the amusement park, a horror or haunted spook-ride built underground that ran the length of much of the park. It featured phantasmagoric animatronics, photo–projections, and live actors to scare the passengers along its track. Its two-person booths and darkness, however, made the ride a favorite of teens and young adults as it allowed couples to discretely engage in all manner of ‘acts,’ earning it the nickname of the Tunnel of Love.

Despite these ‘features’, the Scaredy Cat Club and its staff were implicated in a number of ‘accidents’ over the years. All of the victims were young, but not pre-pubescent. All of them were described as ‘attractive’, ‘handsome’, or ‘pretty’, and all of them were alone. No couples were ever harmed or harassed. Marilyn Sweeney was no exception. According to the news article, she had ridden the ride alone, but was found dead, her cart smeared in blood. Despite the body’s loss of blood, the coroner’s report indicates that she likely died from fear. Hazel can tell that the park tried to cover up the ‘accident’, or at least restrict information from leaking to the public. But it did. And the bad publicity caused the park to shut down and eventually go out of business.

Particularly when evidence started linking the murder to one of the Club’s staff, an old carnie who it became known was wanted in several states for charges of child molestation and sexual batter. Yet, the former freak-show circus act, one Hugo Franconi better known as Doctor Croc for his skin condition of ichthyosis, was never tried.

Hazel: Skin condition, is that right?

GM: Instead, the man with the reptilian-like skin condition was allegedly shot by his fellow carnies after news of Marilyn’s death and the park’s employment of sex offenders forced the amusement park to close forever.

But Hazel’s discoveries do not end there. Jumping between microfiche and online databases, Hazel discovers that Hugo Franconi belonged to a long line of famous circus and carnival performers from the Old World, including Laurent, Aldophe, and Antonio Franconi. In particular, Hazel finds that Hugo was the direct descendant of the eighteenth century performer, Henri Franconi, a semi-famous French playwright of pantomimes, phantasmagoric dramas, and ribald vaudeville as well as esteemed circus equestrian and mime nicknamed Minette.

Hugo, however, could not follow in his family’s equestrian tradition reportedly due to his skin condition which unnerved the animals, so he instead became a traveling freak show’s strong man, alligator man, and physician. The latter questionably authentic medical degree earned him the sobriquet he was best known for amongst patrons of the Scaredy Cat Club. In comparatively less-scholarly sections of the inter web, Hazel finds accounts that Doc Croc, despite his verified death, has been allegedly spotted amongst trespassers of the long-abandoned park. However, local paranormal researchers are in disagreement whether the ‘Doctor’ is a ghostly apparition or something else. Far more substantiated are the deaths of those trespassers.

doc_croc.jpg

Hazel: That’s him.

GM: More recent records indicate that the restricted amusement park has been the sight of at least six deaths in the past decade. Quoted authorities believe that a bear or family of bears may have moved into the subterranean cave. Other more speculative sources suggest that the bears are descended from Cuddles, a tamed circus bear who famously let the Atwood’s children ride on its back.

Hazel, however, discovers Cuddles had a different name amongst the old-time carnies: Cărunt. Which Hazel learns means “Hoary One” due to his grey-grizzled back and ancient age. She also learns that the name is Romanian. Disturbingly, Hazel finds a similarly named and described bear mentioned in Henri Franconi’s circus. Some two hundred years ago.

Hazel: Him. His minion, at any rate. Hazel isn’t sure if bears can be vampires. There certainly aren’t any mythological accounts of such. But those descriptions cannot be coincidences.

GM: While tradition might cause carnies to reuse the same name for different animals, Hazel’s research uncovers another act that pops up over the centuries alongside the bear and the Franconi’s, a German-Romanian puppeteer and ventriloquist by the name of Valentin Vladescu. Precious little information exists on this last name, and Hazel is already milking blood from stones. But the few drops she wrangles indicate that Vladescu reputedly belonged to a roving band of troubadours and court performers whose patrons included the Slavic voivodes as well as Germanic princes and barons.

Fortuitously for Hazel, the Chimera just happens to have the diaries of eighteenth and nineteenth century Germanic princesses and Romanian voivodes. The agonizingly few entries and laboriously translated excerpts indicate that Valentin Vladescu was a preternatural animal trainer, marionette maker, and puppeteer. One excerpt describes how he trained rats to battle small blood-filled dolls he manipulated by strings, much to the horror and excitement of his audience. Another describes how his dolls would put on ribald, scandalously salacious performances that were officially forbidden by various ecclesiastical or secular rulers.

One of these authors–the young Germanic baroness Henriette Mendel, Baroness von Wallersee, morganatic wife of Ludwig Wilhelm, Duke in Bavaria–describes how she took great delight in allowing Valentin to watch behind a wooden screen as she cuckolded her husband with another one of his troupe’s compatriots. She relates how she eventually called to him to join them, but how Valentin seemed transfixed in the most “unmannish” of ways. A much latter entry describes that upon the troupe’s return to the Bavarian castle, Valentin’s companion was not with him. When the baroness inquired as to the companion’s fate, she recorded that: “he replied that the ‘deochi’ claimed him. When pressed as to the meaning of the foreign sentiment, he related that it is the same as your native ‘Böser Blick’–the Evil Gaze. So dark was his gaze then that I, a Baroness of Great Bavaria, was forced to turn away in terror and make the sign of the cross. I fear that the rumors of his study at Scholomance and his descent from Vlad the Impaler may be all too true.”

Beyond that excerpt, there is an aged daguerreotype tucked into the old journal. It features a rakishly handsome man dressed in formal attire with a menacing child-like puppet upon his knee. Upon its back, there is a ink-calligraphed notion: V.V. 1849. Wichtelhausen

VV_old.jpg

With the fragile daguerreotype of “V.V.” in hand, Hazel then turns to another, far more recent photograph of the abandoned remains of the fear-house ride. Dated approximately a year ago, the photograph features the desolate, fallow grounds around the leering cat-faced entrance. Its slitted eyes and gaping black mouth seem to hiss: Enter, if you dare.

Between those centuries-spanning images, she places the one from her own bedroom, the same room that used to belong to Marilyn Sweeney. Yet, as she looks past the beautiful, smiling balloon-carrying girl of thirteen years, the glass-cut slash over her throat points to the background. Under the magnification of the reading glass, Hazel sees the image of the Scaredy Cat’s entrance, black and yawning. Yet, she also sees a figure inside the steepled ticket stripe, staring at Marilyn. The three photos and their myriad eyes all stare at Hazel.

Enter, if you dare.

Hazel: Enter, if I dare.

Hazel closes the last journal with a soft thump, then gets up and begins returning the many books she has withdrawn from their shelves. Her foe’s name and nature are known to her. There is much to be done.

That’s funny, Nosferatu.

I was going to tell you the same thing.

Kurt: Mind’s Eye


Thursday afternoon, 9 October 1998

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 head. The feeling of wanton lust hadn’t entirely abated. And it all feels strange and horribly confusing while awake. But, at the 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.” Kurt 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!” Kurt is personally shocked. He looks absolutely enraptured. Nonetheless, he’s beaming 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. Kurt 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; however, Kurt does make good time as he manages to pass Ridley’s test in the space of twenty-one shots. In the end, however, 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, reaching 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 had 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!” Kurt 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. Kurt 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 Kurt 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 his sister and him to school, the picture of a red–painted pickup truck fresh in Kurt’s mind, as they listened to The Gambler on 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,” Kurt 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 Seven, 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 Chippy 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, honest for the most part, is 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. He’s getting agitated and losing his cool completely. “I am definitely not lying about any of that, you bitch!” He 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 Kurt snaps. His eyes bulge. The buzzing starts again, getting noisier and noisier.

GM: She 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 to Kurt. Nonetheless, his mind’s eye lashes 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…

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Story One, Chapter Nine

Spiral.png


Hazel: Attila Awakens


Thursday morning, 9 October 1998

Hazel: Hazel rises from her bed, still in a bit of a daze. Vampires. No. She’s not thinking about that right now. She gathers up the bloody sheets, hauls them into the shower, and turns the water on full blast, washing away the bloody spirals. She opens her room’s door, retrieves the hamper, and stuffs the wet sheets in. The hotel staff might find it a little odd that a guest would bother cleaning the bedding, but not so odd as finding spirals painted in menstrual blood.

A guest. Getting ready for her day. This is a routine Hazel can follow. Not like… no. She’s not thinking about that. She walks to the phone and orders breakfast. She doesn’t even mind talking to the stranger on the other end. She showers, dresses in her newly-laundered clothes, and pulls a tampon out of the pack that she stole during her last trip to Shop-Plus. It’s ridiculous they have a sales tax. They aren’t luxury items, she grumbles to herself. It’s only half-meant, though. She’s looking for a distraction to occupy her thoughts as much as anything else.

The food arrives outside her door. She thanks the person responsible (what’s the name of the hotel employee who delivers room service? She isn’t sure off hand) without opening it and says they can simply leave it there for her to retrieve. After staring through the peephole to be sure she’s alone, Hazel opens her door and knocks on her mother’s. “Hey Mom, break our fasts together?”

GM: Lydia motions her in as she puts on a pair of earrings. “I usually get my breakfast at the bar, dear, but I can have it sent it up.”

Hazel: Hazel wears none. She never had her ears pierced. The notion of having needles rammed through her flesh by strangers made her all-but physically ill. “That would be ideal.”

GM: “How did you sleep?” Lydia asks in a perfunctory tone as she stands before a mirror, trying to choose between a red and white scarf stitched with native folk-art and a pastel-dyed silk one. “It’s so funny how the Europeans love the Lodge and all its ‘rustic-chic’.”

Hazel: “Well, sensory processing issues were what they were in an unfamiliar room. But it helped that I was relatively familiar with the building.” She pauses. “Better than at home, and I think I’m ready to upgrade to the couch there.”

GM: “That’s very good to hear,” her mother says absentmindedly.

Hazel: “I like the pastel one.”

GM: “Really?” she says, holding it up. “Me too. They might like the folksy one better, but I just feel tawdry in it.”

Hazel: “Yes. Though you know me, I prefer clothes without designs or logos. There is something to be said for austere elegance.”

GM: “Yes, yes there is,” her mother says with a bright pride. She turns around, throwing on the pastel scarf, and dials the concierge. “Good morning, Mathias.” “Yes, would you please be a lamb and send up my regular to my room?” “Why thank you, Mathias, and same to you.” She hangs up the phone, grabs her pre-selected heels, and starts to slip them on. “Do you need a ride, Hazel?”

Hazel: “I certainly wouldn’t object. I’m usually a little sweaty if I arrive by biking.” Hazel, meanwhile, for all her desire to have the hotel do her laundry, only had a whole of two outfits for them. She simply never bothered leaving her house during the week before she started her job, and so had no cause to wear anything apart from black tees. Consequently, so as to avoid wearing the same outfit as yesterday’s, she wears the same one as the day before yesterday’s: black turtleneck dress and matching leggings. As she saw no reason to pack a second pair of shoes, she also wears yesterday’s black ballet flats, and so is dressed entirely in the dark color apart from a navy scarf.

She doesn’t consciously consider it. But it’s fitting that if she should meet a vampire tonight, she should meet him in black.

GM: “You know, dear, the offer still stands: you earn your driver’s license, and I’ll buy the car.”

Hazel: “I’ll think about it, Mom. The prospect of driving makes me nervous, but I’m certain most people my age would kill for such a deal.”

She then changes the topic. “By the way. Dad says hi and that he’s ‘sorry for being a bonehead.’ His words.” Further ones linger unsaid on the edge of her tongue. He also wants to get back together with you. But now isn’t the moment. She needs to find out whether the Keystone-Nostrum deal is actually going to pan out in her mother’s favor and land her that partnership. If Mom really is going to leav…

No. She isn’t thinking about that right now either. She won’t. It’s just… possible that Dad might not be able to get back together with her mother, no matter how Lydia feels towards him. Some divides are too large to cross, and trying to build a bridge could just result in Harvey plummeting down the chasm. For now, Hazel will simply try to gauge how far the distance is before assisting in any bridge-building. If she even should.

She sighs to herself.

More secrets.

GM: Lydia stops, and for the first time this morning, seems fully rooted in the present, rather than half-engaged in future engagements and to-do lists. “Did he?” she asks rhetorically.

Hazel: “His precise words were the following,” Hazel answers, pulled mostly out of her own glum thoughts. “So pumpkin, when you see your mom, tell her I said ‘hi’ and that I’m sorry for being a bonehead.’”

GM: Lydia drums her freshly painted nails on a side table. Her lips purse tightly before she replies: “Well, I will have to have to remind Harvey that salutations and apologies are best made in person, and that you are not his or my carrier pigeon.”

A second later, the door knocks with the delivery of Lydia’s morning regular: a Bloody Mary, complete with lime and celery stick. Lydia thanks the bellboy by name and tips him generously.

Hazel: Hazel decides it’s best to comment no further on that. Directly or indirectly, those were the words Dad requested she convey to his ex-wife. As is typical, Hazel hangs back from the suite’s doorway to avoid contact with the hotel staff. Once the bellboy has left she remarks, “I cannot help but recall your own use of the term last night, notable for the differences which otherwise exist between your modes of speech.”

GM: Lydia doesn’t look as she stirs the celery stick and takes a sip of the vodka cocktail. “Well, we were married for a decade, dear.”

Hazel: Hazel isn’t initially sure what to say to that. “Some things must rub off. Is that all you usually have for breakfast?”

GM: Her mother looks up and smiles sardonically. “I call it the Six-Figure Slim-Fast. After all, it has tomato juice, horseradish, celery, and olives. It’s practically a vegetable smoothie.” She takes another sip. “Taste all those vitamins.”

Hazel: “Don’t I feel piggish ordering the breakfast burrito. That’s certainly a great many essential nutrients.”

GM: “The vodka’s not bad either,” her mother adds ruefully.

Hazel: Hazel isn’t sure how to broach that topic either. Wine is the most she’ll drink with the meds she’s on. They don’t react well to harder alcohols. “Well, you know I’m not much of a drinker. The alcohol doesn’t interfere with work?”

GM: “This little cocktail?” Lydia asks sarcastically with a slight titter. “You might be surprised, Hazel, but it actually helps professionally. It’s a marvelous hair of the dog, but without the awful canine flavor. Plus, I rarely drink more than a few sips.” Taking one last swig and bite of the celery stick as if to accentuate her point, she then walks over to her open briefcase. She tosses in a few files that were on her dining table, along with a pair of VHS tapes. Clicking shut her briefcase, she then looks at the clock. “Well, I believe we should get going, yes?”

Hazel: Hazel honestly isn’t certain if her mother is in denial or if the amount she’s drinking really is harmless. Alcohol was just one of those subjects she never bothered to learn much about. There seemed little point when she has to stay away from anything stronger than wine. “Ah, sure. I’ll just eat during first period. It doesn’t see too many students anyways.”

GM: Lydia checks her watch to double-check the time. “Are you sure?”

Hazel: “Oh, I’d feel piggish eating a whole burrito when you’re just having a sip of that anyways. And if some students do show up I can just close the library for a few minutes during second period. I usually don’t eat breakfast until noon or later on weekends in any case.”

GM: “Okay, dear,” Lydia replies. As the two depart, Hazel’s mother brushes a loose hair from her daughter’s shoulder. “Your outfit suits you. Professional, but not pretentious.”

Hazel: “Oh, why thanks Mom. I wore it the day before yesterday too, apart from the shoes.”

GM: “I see,” her mother says with an arched eyebrow.

Hazel: “It’s clean. I had it laundered last night.” The caveat still seems necessary. A younger Hazel wore the same unwashed sweatpants for days on end.

GM: “That is good to hear, Hazel, though I might recommend a good rule of thumb is to never recycle the same outfit in the same work week.”

Hazel: Hazel is about to reply when a lightbulb dings in her head. She nearly forgot. The stress must be getting to her.

“Actually, I can still distinguish it a bit. One moment.” Hazel returns to her room and packs up the breakfast–and lunch–she ordered from room service into a sackcloth that she stows in her backpack. It also looks like she won’t be wearing all black after all as she pulls on the same gray cardigan from yesterday–then retrieves the SVCD from its hiding place behind the ventilation grill, along with her toothbrush from the bathroom (she didn’t want to use an unfamiliar one provided by the hotel) and slips the former item into one of the cardigan’s pockets. She’s not letting it anywhere off her person. She reappears after a moment with her backpack slung over her shoulder.

“Okay, let’s go.”

GM: “A nice accent,” her mother comments, “And a practical one too. Why, just two mornings ago, I could hardly see out my windows due to all the frost.”

Hazel: Practical? Oh, if you had any idea, Mom.

“Brrr. I’ll have to start getting out my winter coats.” Hazel pauses. “Oh, one unrelated matter. Do you think I should tell Dad about the trucker I had to mace? Just so the police can have him in their sights in case he gets any further ideas. On the other hand, do you think Dad’s likely to do something… excessive?”

Hazel is partly soliciting her mother’s opinion. But it’s also a reminder. He cares about me just as much as you do.

GM: “Hmm,” Lydia ponders as they ride the elevator to her valet-readied SUV. “Do you think anyone already reported the incident to the police?”

Hazel: “That’s a good question. Likely better to assume not. And, legally, he does have more basis than I do to press charges. Not that I think he’s likely to.” Hazel smiles. “Or likely to win, with you as my mom.”

GM: “That’s very kind, dear, but do recall that I am a corporate lawyer, not a criminal or civil attorney. Although I do know quite a few of the former and latter. But regardless, what are the chances you think this man might attempt extralegal retaliation?”

Hazel: “I know. The connections and basic legal experience do still count.” Hazel frowns. “That… admittedly seems more likely than legal retaliation. I’m not sure I’d care to place a number on it, but perhaps it would be safer to get rides to and from work for a little while.”

GM: “Or perhaps it would be most prudent to get your license and your own car, dear, particularly with the cold. But I digress,” she says, turning on her import’s heat and lights. “Due to your already shaky legal grounds, I would suggest you call the sheriff’s office and lodge a formal incident report with anyone other than Harvey. That way, they have your concerns on record, and are thus obligated to respond or risk a suit. You also avoid any allegations of nepotism.”

Hazel: Hazel represses a frown. “I can’t argue with your legal logic. I’ll let him know about it ‘off the books.’”

GM: Lydia has to in turn repress her own frown. She clearly wants to limit Hazel’s interaction with Harvey, but there’s only so much she can argue the point.

Hazel: Hazel climbs in the SUV’s side door. “Also, Mom, I would appreciate if you could refer to him as ‘your father’, please. It’s somewhat obfuscating for us to use the same term to refer to different men during conversations.”

GM: Lydia is quiet for a while, but her tone is measured when she eventually replies. “Richard’s death does not negate him being your father. Nor does my divorce negate the fact that Harvey adopted you.”

Hazel: “Richard is my biological father, and is the term by which I have always referred to him. I refer to Harvey as my father because he had–and contidnues to have–a profoundly greater role in my life and impact upon my development as a human being.”

GM: Her mother frowns. “That’s a rather myopic and cruel thing to say, Hazel. Richard gave you life. If you wish to speak of development, half of all your genetic material came from Richard.”

Hazel: “I don’t speak of genetics, Mom. I speak of lives as they are actively lived, not developed in utero. Dad had me over last night after my anxiety attacks struck. He made me dinner. He kept strangers who knocked on the door from talking to me. He showed me how to dance. And that is but a small snapshot of the many ways he has provided a home environment where I feel safe and loved. He did–and does–this without regard for my genetic makeup.”

“I’m sure my biological father would have been a great father to me. But he wasn’t there to be one–or at least not there long enough for me to retain any memories of him. I don’t refer to a house I wished to live in and did not as ‘my house’, no more than I am prepared to refer to a man who did not raise me as ‘my father’. Like it or not, Dad has been a parent to me in every possible that way a man could be, save for engaging in coitus with you three trimesters before my birth. I don’t refer to my biological father as ‘your first husband’, so I would appreciate being shown the same courtesy with regards to my own familial relationships. If that is too much to ask, then I am happy to start referring to my biological father as ‘your first husband.’” Hazel pauses and continues, “But I would sooner prefer–in fact, I would far prefer–that we be courteous to one another and acknowledge the respective significance of the relationships that have had so great an impact on our lives.”

GM: Lydia’s face is clearly strained. “Just this year, the First Lady and all the top neuroscientists gathered together to discuss how the most important brain developments occur in the first three years of life. My first husband was there for those years of your life. He wasn’t just a sperm donor who died conveniently before you learned to speak.”

Hazel: “And Dad was there for the twenty-odd years of my life I do remember. Is still there. He wasn’t just a babysitter who stepped in conveniently after my biological father died. Is it your contention, then, that nature is more important to a child’s development than nurture?”

GM: “Hazel, this isn’t Descartes versus Locke, round two. Neuroscientists readily admit to the salient role of environmental factors–but assert that their greatest prominence is from zero to three.” She sighs. “It’s my fault.”

Hazel: “I’m sorry, your own fault?”

GM: Lydia keeps her eyes on the road as she drives, honking once at a car that is too slow to accelerate once the light turns green. “That your father, your biological father, is dead. To you, I mean. Whether or not I should have remarried is a separate issue, but I remarried too soon. I didn’t keep Richard alive for you. I didn’t want to confuse you.”

Hazel: “Mom, he wasn’t present in my life, while another man was. You are hardly at fault for that.” Hazel pauses. “And you are hardly at fault for remarrying Dad.”

GM: Lydia shakes her head. “But he was there for you, Hazel,” she says, her eyes starting to well. “And now, now you don’t even consider him your father. I betrayed him.”

Hazel: Hazel is quiet for a while. She didn’t… she didn’t want to upset Mom like that. Yet the woman’s refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of her relationship with Dad is maddening.

“You know, Mom,” she says slowly, “I’ve read a lot of articles online about people with ASD who didn’t turn out as well as I have. I wonder sometimes how easily I could have ended up in a mental institution, or simply a mute invalid with you as my legal guardian at 23, if environmental factors had been any different. Like the time travelers in Bradbury’s story, who knows what one little thing could have inadvertently caused. Just this morning I woke up to find I’d been scrawling the same pattern in my menstrual blood while I slept, over and over. So I really do wonder.”

As if realizing she’s provided too much information, Hazel adds, “I washed the sheets myself.”

GM: Hazel’s confession of repetitively sleep-painting in her own blood finally causes her mom to look at her. It’s a look of more than mild concern. Hazel’s mention of washing her own sheets does little to abate that concern. “Has… that ever happened before?”

Hazel: “No. Not to my recollection, at least, maybe I did it when I was a small child.” As if realizing the impossibility of that statement, Hazel adds, “Paint in my sleep, that is. Not menstruate. But the point is, Mom, I didn’t start talking until we moved to Witiko Falls. If you could do things all over again, and have moved another three years later, would you be prepared to gamble me ending up a mental invalid?”

GM: Lydia has to look away. Maybe because she’s driving, or maybe because she doesn’t want to look that question square in the eyes. “I… I don’t know, Hazel. I mean, of course I want you to be healthy. But if I could go back… I just don’t know. Who’s to say things wouldn’t have been better? We just don’t know. We don’t… can’t know.”

“And your speaking… it might not have had to do anything with us moving here. It could have just been the trajectory of your brain. I mean, look at Einstein. He didn’t speak until he was four–and not because he lost and gained a new parent. You were just like him. Not a word, and then, full sentences.”

Hazel: “Well, you’re right that we can’t know. But as someone whose symptoms are manageable and easily brushed up, I can say that gambling my entire my entire mental well-being isn’t a bet I’d desire to make, no matter how favorable the odds. Even 0.1% ones that I’d spend the rest of my life dumbly painting pictures in my menstrual blood, unable to comprehend anything else…”

Hazel has to stop at that, before an even worse question rears its head. How easily could that still happen to her, after all that’s been occurring?

“All I can say, Mom, is that such–thank heavens–did not happen, and that you remarried a wonderful man who was and is everything I could wish from a father.” Hazel closes her eyes for a moment and then asks, her voice pained, “Can’t you simply acknowledge who he is to me?”

GM: Lydia frowns severely at Hazel’s second mention of menstrual painting. Her response though is more measured. In some ways, it almost reminds Hazel of her own pre-written speeches. “The Montana-Idahoan Panhandle has the highest vehicular accident and auto related death rate in the entire country. The odds of you personally dying in a car crash are 1 out of 4,433. In Washington state, by contrast, the odds are much lower, only 1 out of approximately 16,000. And yet, here you are risking death because you dislike being sweaty. And here I am, driving you and risking my life and yours for similarly small, immediate gains. And yet, both of our decisions to use this vehicle are rational.”

Her jaw sets. “I could have decided to never drive or ride in a car again after what happened to your father. I could have let fear rule me. What happened to Richard wasn’t a statistical fluke, it was a rare but recurrent statistic. If I could go back, we never would have gone on that trip. Not through here at least. But as terrible, tragic, accidental, and avoidable as his death was, I can’t let statistically rare risks rule my life. Nor should you, Hazel.”

Hazel: Hazel isn’t ever one to refute logic with emotional appeals, and so she does not. Her voice calms as she continues, “The die has been cast, and events have played out as they have. I would like you to acknowledge Dad for who he is to me. Just as I am certain you prefer me acknowledging my biological father for who he is.”

GM: Lydia is quiet, her brow furrowed and hands tight on the wheel. Eventually, though, her features soften, and there’s a dry click in the back of her throat. “Yes,” she says. “I am glad we had this talk. And we can talk more about it, later.”

Hazel: “Thank you, Mom,” Hazel states. She thinks for a moment. She should offer some kind of olive branch. “Would you feel better if I referred to him as… my first father rather than my biological father? If that does not sound unusual.”

GM: There’s another tightening of the brow and knuckles, but it doesn’t last long. “I think that would be fine.” She pauses, her eyes flickering to the looming high school. “Hazel… there are things about your father, your first father, that you should know, things that maybe you’ve forgotten or maybe that I should have told you about a long time ago.”

“But those things will have to wait,” she adds, gesturing to the approaching school.

Hazel: “Yes, I suppose they will.” Hazel pauses. That certainly piques her interest, but she’s put off enough other things she’d wanted to know more about. Layne. The tape of the Spooks. “By the way. Uncle Leo informed me that a recent, generous, and seemingly anonymous donation was responsible for the library being able to procure a barcode scanner, new desktop, and related modern equipment. Was that you?”

GM: “What?” her mother asks as she pulls into the faculty parking lot. “No, dear, I wouldn’t donate to the school.” Then, parking the vehicle in the assistant principal’s reserved spot, she turns to Hazel and says, “Now, as for what happened this morning, I suggest you set up an appointment with your psychiatrist. Perhaps it’s a side effect or perhaps you need a prescription change. I’m not qualified professionally to make that diagnosis or prognosis, but I think you need to see someone who is. But I wouldn’t disclose that to anyone else, dear.” She pats Hazel gently on the hand. “But don’t fret about it too much. It’s probably just stress. New job. New future possibilities. Let’s just check, and take things one day at a time.”

Hazel: Hazel suppresses a grimace. She’d shared that tidbit to make a point, but it should come as little surprise that her mother isn’t giving up on it. She can’t talk to a psychiatrist, though. The issues she’s facing are well beyond the ability of any mental health professional to treat. At best, she will merely assuage her mother’s worry. At worst, she could cause a whole host of new problems for herself.

But her consternation fades as her mom waves such things off. “That’s right, Mom. It would also likely help if I tried following my existing medication regimen. It is hardly fair to tell a doctor that the treatment they have prescribed is not working when it is not being followed.” She pauses again, reigning in the questions brimming on the edge of her tongue. “I’ll also hold you to that, so far as my other father.”

GM: “I hope you do,” her mother says obliquely to both remarks.

Hazel: Hazel opens the car door and slings on her backpack. Leo (or Crabb?) probably won’t want to see her mother lingering in the space. As she gets out of the SUV she turns back and states, “Thanks for the lift, Mom. I love you.”

GM: “As I love you, Hazel. Have a good, productive day, and I’ll see you later tonight.”

Hazel: Hazel smiles, nods, shuts the door and sets off. Her mother’s words linger in her head. _There are things about your father, your first father, that you should know._

When was the last time they really talked about him?

Hazel: “Hey Mom, you got a minute? Or maybe a lot longer?” Hazel asks as she knocks on the open door to her mother’s home office space. It’s been two years since she stopped wearing baggy sweatpants in favor of blue jeans, long-sleeved gray tees, and using shampoo in her hair (a habit she will later give up again). Apart from slightly plumper cheeks and generally more youthful features, she looks much the same at a month from 18 as she does at a month from 24. Same hairstyle, same glasses, same clothes. She’s never cared for change.

GM: Lydia puts down Hazel’s recently received acceptance letter from Gonzaga, her own alma mater. Indeed, Hazel finds her mother with a rarely seen memorabilia box. A number of photos and papers lie on her desk–but today they aren’t related to work. “Yes, of course, dear.”

Hazel: Hazel sits down on the couch. She runs her hand over its edge several times, briefly distracted by the back and forth sensation of felt against her skin. “What was my… biological father like?” This isn’t the first time Hazel has asked about him. But with graduation looming this school year, and her whole life ahead of her, she’s feeling introspective.

GM: Lydia’s never been one to speak much of her first husband, at least not with Hazel. Luckily for the introspective senior though, recent events have put Lydia in a nostalgic, retrospective mood. Her mom smiles, a hint of both fondness and sadness touching her eyes. “Richard was… he was a dreamer.”

Hazel: “It sounds as if we had that in common.” Hazel doesn’t quite manage to smile at the half-joke. She is, after all, in the Lucid Dreamers’ Club.

GM: Lydia smiles again, the sadness and fondness somehow all the more pronounced. “Yes.” She leans back in her chair, closing her eyes. “He had this way with you.” A smirk touches her lips as she regards her daughter. “As a baby, you were a downright colicky beast, Hazel.”

Hazel: Hazel thinks. “That’s… if an infant cries for more than three hours in a row on three or more days a week for at least three weeks.”

GM: “I’d try to feed you, rock you, sing to you, change you, and beat my head into the wall. But Richard, he would just pick you up, go to the rocking chair. And then, without fail, I’d find the two of you, both fast asleep, little matching smiles on your faces. It was adorable. Infuriating at times, but adorable.”

Hazel: “That sounds… nice,” Hazel replies. She isn’t sure what else to say to the memory. The man her mother is describing is largely a stranger to her, but Lydia seems happy talking about him.

GM: “I asked him, all the time, about how he did it. Believe me, once you’re a mother and it’s four AM and you’ve only had two hours of sleep, and you’re dealing with an inconsolable infant, you’ll kill for that kind of magic.” She laughs, “I’m not making the case of motherhood very well.”

Hazel: “It’s okay. I don’t think it’s very strong regardless,” Hazel assures. At seventeen, at least, she’s fairly resolute that she doesn’t want children.

GM: Her mother frowns a bit before replying, “Not all babies are colicky. Most aren’t.” She then winks, “Just the special ones.”

Hazel: “Ah, that’s right. Greater effort expended for greater dividends.”

GM: Lydia waves her hand. “Anyways, so I always asked him but never learned the trick. It was just one of his secrets. Instead, he just always said that your dreams were too big for your little body, and that’s why you were so fussy. I told him that the same statement could be said about him, and he would just smile.”

Hazel: “What do you mean, exactly, by that he was a dreamer? He had unconventional life ambitions?”

GM: “Oh, definitely. But it was more than that.” She reaches into the memorial box and flicks through the papers until she finds a photo, which she passes to Hazel. It’s of her mother, dressed in her graduation gown with her unofficial Juris Doctorate in hand. Beside her is a black-haired man with sallow-pale skin who Hazel only dimly knows as Richard. He, like Lydia, is beaming, but is dressed in casual clothes with sunglasses. He’s holding a two-year-old Hazel in his arms, hoisting her up proudly like his own diploma.

Lydia taps the photo. “Graduation night.” She smiles, “I remember he teased me right before the photo was taken, saying how in two years, you had learned how to see, hear, eat, crawl, and walk, while I had only learned law.”

Hazel: Hazel looks the photo over for a long while. She’s seen a few pictures of him before, but… it was a long time ago. Mom never really talked about Richard around Dad, and after the divorce, things were still so raw for a while. “That’s… very humorous, Mom,” she smiles. “It looks rather as if I am his own diploma there.”

GM: The odd mixture of fondness and sadness steals over Lydia’s face again. “He always said you were his biggest dream.”

Hazel: The smile fades from Hazel’s own. “I learned how to do all those things. But I never did learn how to talk, when he was alive. Did he contemplate whether I’d… end up a permanent invalid?”

GM: “What?” her mothers says, clearly surprised. “No, of course not. He thought the world of you. Always said how you’d change the world.”

Hazel: “Oh.” Hazel pauses, uncertain whether she’s said something inappropriate. That happens less often than it did several years ago, but still more often than at 23. “I’m sorry. It simply seemed a reasonable parental fear.”

GM: Her mother pats her on the back reassuringly. “Richard was anything but reasonable. Or fearful.”

Hazel: Hazel looks back down at the photo of her smiling parents. “You said he had unconventional life ambitions?”

GM: “Very much so. Not that he was like a hippie or anything weird, dear. Just that he saw the world a bit differently than most people. I mean, not saw of course, but well perceived things differently. He had the soul of an artist.”

Hazel: “Was he an artist? No, you said ‘soul.’ That implies he had the temperament of one even if he wasn’t one himself.” He saw the world a bit differently. That description sounds all-too familiar to Hazel. At seventeen, she doesn’t like talking about the subject in front of her mother, but… she wants to know even more.

“Was he…” Hazel starts to ask, then trails off. She glances away from her mother and back towards the photo in her hand. “Was he who I inherited autism from? Since it’s often genetic.” The words come out in a quick rush. At almost-24 and after five years of living away from her parents, Hazel will be more comfortable discussing her ASD around them. At almost-18 she still hates using the ‘a word.’ It’s a reminder of all the still-fresh difficulties she’s faced getting to the acceptance letter’s point. She can feel some color rising her cheeks as she stares at the photo she’s not really looking at.

Not even the Hazel of 1998, though, would add, And since it’s clearly not from you.

GM: Lydia brushes back a loose strand of her teenage daughter’s hair. “No, dear, Richard didn’t have autism if that’s what you’re asking. He saw the world as it really was, but he wasn’t satisfied with it. He learned to live in it, but never truly accepted it. He never settled.”

Hazel: Hazel feels somewhat foolish asking now. Actually, considerably foolish, bringing up that uncomfortable question for nothing. She doesn’t look up from the picture yet as she tries to move along the topic. “That sounds. Like you.”

GM: Lydia traces a finger on the photo of her deceased husband. “He said that’s what attracted him to me. He said I ‘looked’ like a fire. Always changing, always hungry, always bright. Able to burn or illuminate. What kind of pick-up line is that? ‘You like like a fire.’ Those were really his first words to me. At first I thought he was going to make a lame comment about being hot. But he didn’t. Richard was many things, but what you expected wasn’t one of them.”

Hazel: Hazel manages a smile as she glances up at her mother. “That’s a very novel way to introduce oneself. I don’t think I’d mind someone saying similar words to me.”

GM: “I evidently didn’t mind it either,” her mom says with a nose-crinkling smile.

Hazel: “The evidence does speak for herself,” Hazel quips with another one. She almost adds, “That’s a play on ‘the evidence speaks for itself,’” but catches herself. Her mom probably got the joke. “So what did he do, exactly, if he wasn’t an artist and was so… well, I suppose the closest single word for it is ‘ambitious’?”

GM: “Oh, well, he dabbled in all sorts of things. But I guess he was primarily a writer.”

Hazel: “What did he write?”

GM: “What didn’t he?” her mother chuckles. “But freelance fiction, dear. Short stories, screenplays, that sort of thing. Why, I think he even did some commercials or a jingle or something of that sort.”

Hazel: “Do you have any of them saved, still?”

GM: “Maybe,” she says. “I actually didn’t read much of it myself. In law school, I had all the reading I could take and more.”

Hazel: Hazel is genuinely surprised by that. They’re what she has left of her former husband, after all. But even at seventeen, Hazel doesn’t feel as if she should criticize her mother on that front. “Well, I wouldn’t mind reading them if you do.”

GM: Tapping Hazel’s college acceptance letter, Lydia remarks, “I have a feeling you’ll be pretty swamped with non-fiction reading soon too, but I’ll look and see what I have.”

Hazel: Hazel suppresses a grimace at the expectant workload. “Well, not for a while yet. I still have the rest of the school year and all summer. But that sounds good.” She pauses for a moment, then asks, “What do you think he’d think of me?”

GM: Lydia smiles and lightly places two hands on Hazel’s shoulders. “Oh, Hazel, I know just what he’d think of you. I know just what he’d say. He’d say, ’you’re a dream come true’.”

Hazel: Hazel’s stride slows as she heads into the high school and turns over the memory. She actually feels a little bad now, threatening to call her other father ‘your first husband’ to Mom. It really did sound as if he’d loved her, and been the sort of man Lydia could love too.

What happened in the crash was tragic. And maybe she shouldn’t so completely deny who Richard is around Mom. But… no, she isn’t doing that anymore. She said she’d refer to him as her ‘first father.’ Harvey—Dad—still remains the man who raised her, and she shouldn’t deny that either. Neither should Mom, who’s agreed to stop doing so. So, everything seems like it’s turned out as well as it could’ve, even if Hazel has a nagging sense things could’ve turned out… better? No, not necessarily better. Just… different.

How different would her life have been if the car crash never claimed her first father’s—if he and Mom raised her back in San Francisco? He seemed like a caring man, and one who honestly had more in common with Lydia than her next husband did. But the thought of never knowing Dad–her second dad, that is–seems just as tragic. Harvey might’ve married someone else. Probably would’ve married someone else, he is very well-liked within the town. Had other kids. Would he have been happier? Would Hazel? And what is that happiness weighed against her first father’s life? And against Mom’s happiness too, who’s clearly–

Hazel abruptly shakes her head, as if to clear it of those endless might–have–beens.

She has work. And what happened is what happened.

Brook: Skin Deep


Thursday morning, 9 October 1998

GM: The end of daylight savings will bring about a hard adjustment for the sophomore–assuming he doesn’t first get expelled. But for now, the moon is hanging onto the edges of the western mountains as the eastern sky creeps with indigo rays to swallow the stars. It hovers above freezing, and Brook’s breath fogs the crisp, autumnal air.

His fellow high school students mill about in the parking lot or benches outside the still-locked school doors. Spotting the ranger cadet’s truck, June leaves a pack of freshmen huddled together protectively from both the cold and the upperclassman. Brook spots her wave and smile. He also spots Leanne Byers jump down from a tree in the parking lot and start walking toward him. And then there’s the third set of eyes starting at him. Nelson’s. He’s leaning against the stone exterior of the school, his JV football jacket tight around his muscles, his light hair buzzed short and gleaming in the last moonlight.

Brook: Brook can only smile. At least there’s some sunshine out already, right? Waving back at June, he leans against his truck and waits for her to get to the truck. Meanwhile, he deals with the stares from Nelson. They’ll have to have a talk after school, in their detention together. He doesn’t react much to the football meat-head, instead smiling to June as she comes up, glad to have her to talk to before class. “June! Glad to see you’re still breathing after all that manual labor. How was painting the deck?”

GM: June skips over to Brook. Initially thinking those smiles were for her, Leanne turns around and climbs up the tree. Nelson wipes his nose with the back of his hand, and just continues to stare.

“Oh, the deck? It was okay. But I listened to all your show last night. Or at least till like 1 am,” she says with a small smile. The petite girl is dressed in her older brother’s hand-me down down jacket that makes her look like she’s been swallowed by a blue marshmallow. She lays a hand on Brook’s wrist. “So you gotta level with me. That whole hook-hand escaped lunatic spot. That wasn’t real, right? You were just pulling a War of the Worlds prank. Right?”

Brook: Brook looks over at Leanne as she hops back into the tree, feeling a little bad. He’ll have to go and say hi to her later. June however, cute as a button, says something that really worries the much larger boy.

“June, no. Definitely not a joke. If you see anyone like that, you don’t let him see you, okay? My mother sent that call, and she doesn’t joke. Lots of strange shit the past few days, this crazy guy being the least of it. Right now, I’m more worried that I just made Leanne over there feel bad.”

GM: June frowns as she tries to grapple with everything Brook says. “That least of it?” she repeats, seemingly unsure what tops an escaped, one-armed insane sociopath. The mention of Leanne draws another frown. Her breath fogs as she rubs her ungloved hands together.

Brook: Brook frowns a little bit as well, sighing and taking a second. Monsters or girls. Jesus, at least he can point a gun in one of those thing’s faces. “Remember the beginning of the segment? I had to go to Rockwell’s Fall to clean up roadkill. That place is bad news. Don’t ever go down there, okay?”

At his mention of Leanne, though, he gives a steady look down at June. She was jealous, it was obvious there was some crap to sort out. “June, I think we should have a special talk soon, okay? When we have some more time.” Danny is his best friend. June is an adorable girl who he’d really liked before Danny snatched her up. Then there’s Leanne. Fuck.

GM: “Um, sure,” the cupid-face girl says. A few upperclassmen pass by, and say hello to the disk jockey.

Brook: Brook waves back to the passing group and sighs, leaning tired against the truck. Like he can feel the sun coming up soon. "There’s also another little… bad thing that’s happening. My mother is meeting the principal tomorrow. I might be getting expelled. "

GM: “What?!” June’s face looks like she just got slapped. “Why?!”

Brook: Brook is a bit calmer. He knows his mother is more solid than the principal. He could get another chance. “I’m a narcoleptic. I fall asleep in class. Also, I have a demanding job. I’m… not exactly a great student.”

GM: June struggles for words. “What… is there anything I can do?” Daniel’s bus rolls into the parking lot.

Brook: Brook shakes his head and smiles a bit. “My mother is going to talk with them. I’ll get another try. I just have to study harder, is all. Starting with that Pict project.”

Danny’s bus comes up and adds another face to his morning. “Before he comes, Danny and me are Res kids, so we know the family. But you should know that Cindy Crowshoe? Her mother really did die.”

GM: “Yeah,” she says, looking down, “I was listening to your show. I asked my uncle if I could go, but he said we weren’t really invited. To the vigil, that is, the one last night.” She looks up at the approaching mowhawk-teen. “Danny went. He called me.”

Brook: Brook nods a little and looks over to Danny. He’s glad one of the three of them went. “We should just be kind to Cindy a bit more from now on.” Danny’s presence is much appreciated once he gets to them. “Danny! Welcome to the pity party. Bad news all around.”

GM: “Yeah, seriously,” he says looking at their somber faces, “Who died?” He immediately regrets the words. “Sorry, god, sorry, way too soon.” He hangs his head and moves over to the group.

Brook: Brook winces at the joke, shaking his head just a little, but forgiving his friend right quick. “Slip of the tongue. But… yeah. Cindy wasn’t just tripping out. On top of that, there’s a crazy killer on the loose, and tomorrow I might be getting expelled for being a bad student.”

Another sigh and he smooths his hand through his hair. “Crazy day. Only good news is I got the evening off. So you guys want a trip to the records after detention, I can drive you.”

GM: Now it’s Daniel’s turn to be shocked. “What?!” June breaks into tears. Daniel stands there agog.

Brook: Danny being shocked is no surprise, but June starting to cry? “Jeez. I said might. I’ll get off scott free, you’ll see. My mother has my back, probably the only woman in the town scarier than the principal.”

Grabbing Danny by the shirt, Brook pulls him in towards June, motioning him to comfort her. Looks like she needs a shoulder. “I gotta stay awake more is all. That and study a bit harder. I doubt it’ll affect the show, even. I’ll check out more books now that the library’s open.”

GM: Daniel hugs June, who quickly wipes her eyes and apologizes for “losing it.”

Brook: Brook smiles a bit and pats them both on the back. Things will be fine. If not? He can sleep while they go to school and hang out afterwards. “It’ll be fine, I promise. I think the principal just didn’t like not not taking her weird culty punishment.”

GM: As other buses and vehicles arrive, the rest of Brook’s clique arrives.

The dizygotic twins, Grady and Griffin Henderson, shuffle in from their bus. The two blond-headed freshman are June’s neighbors and long-time acquaintances. Although the pair have known Brook and Daniel for less than three years, and have only really hung out for the past month, they have become quite close to Daniel, particularly after the would-be card-dealer started dating June and was forced to spend less time with his increasingly busy best-friend.

Hendersons.png

A few inches taller than June, but half a head shorter than Brook, the pair enter the gathering mid-discussion of their latest scheme to catch the Coyote Child. Griffin slurps from a Mountain Dew can while Grady shivers with his hands in his pockets, having forgotten or left his coat. Again. “Alpo,” insists Griffin after forcing a burp, “She deserves the best.”

“Store-brand, dude,” the shivering Grady retorts, “She’s not going to be able to tell the difference between Alpo and Shop-Plus.”

“How do you know–you ever tried them?” Griffin ribs.

Grady rolls his eyes, “Look, we’re need to skimp so we can afford the silver.”

“Let’s ask Brook,” Griffin says, nodding in the direction of the tall sophomore they’re approaching.

“S’up, bitches,” Daniel greets them, forcing a smile as he hugs June tightly. Meanwhile, a cherry-red ‘97 Acura Integra GSR pulls up to Brook’s truck, and out steps the Vanberger siblings. Long-time residents of the area, the Kootenai-German descended Vanbergers have earned a notorious reputation as troublesome hucksters, gold-diggers, and get-rich scam artists. In the 1890s, the Vanbergers infamously sold false maps and shoddy supplies to the Euro-American gold-crazed miners from the south. In the early twentieth century, they bilked rich sanatoria patients by passing off counterfeit ‘tribal remedies and artifacts’. Urban legends say that helped Mr. Yaza con the Japanese developers of Saint Enoch’s Towers, and in the mid-1970s, they helped other Kootenai declare war on the United States and demand tolls from highway passengers by gunpoint until the federal government made monetary and tribal concessions.

More recently, the Vanbergers further “bleached out” (as the Res natives describe those natives who marry and assimilate into white mainstream culture) when Velma Vanberger conned a rich, elderly Canadian oil shale prospector into marrying her and adopting her two out of wed-lock born children: Tootsie and Tobias. Velma’s fortunes (and ill-fame) only increased when her elderly husband died shortly after being admitted to Mount Pelion General Hospital under somewhat mysterious circumstances–and Velma sued MPGH and earned a rather large cash settlement.

Financial beneficiaries as well as social victims of their family’s lack of scruples, the 16 year-old Tootsie and 14-year-old Tobias have struggled to find acceptance on or off the Res, particularly due to their mixed heritage, their new money status, and the fact that both are overweight (which has led to all sorts of cruel nicknames like Tubby, Tootsie Rolls, Tan-Burgers. etc.). Perhaps due to Brook’s own infamous, mixed background, Tootsie has always tried to associate with Mary’s adoptive son, even before he became a local radio celebrity and she a rich gold digger’s daughter.

Tootsie.png

As she steps out of her expensive coupe, the well-heeled Tootsie flashes Brook a smile as she throws on a leather jacket over a sleeveless black dress. The moonlight glints off her curled hair and an expensive jeweled necklace around her soft neck. Her younger brother, Tobias (or Toby as he is known by the few that don’t call him Tubby) follows after his older sister. His long, highlighted hair and upturned collar of his designer wool coat frame his soft, wide baby-face.

Tobias.png

Brook: Brook hasn’t seen the entire gang in one place for awhile, but is glad to see them all safe after yesterday’s rough go of things. This is another thing he’ll have to keepsake with hard work in school. Summer brings work for him, but it’s fall now. Things will start to slow down as the winter weather came along. Less fire risks, easier to track animals, the whole shebang. But he’s still thankful to have the twins to keep Danny company, and the Vanberger siblings.

The twins are great energy to have around, and with mixed blood on both their sides, Brook always tries to get along with Tootsie and Toby. Despite their family having a tricky past, he can’t turn his nose up at the results. They’re both just along for the crazy ride, and neither of them has a dad either.

“And with that, the gang’s all here! Glad to see none of you got snatched up by that lunatic on the loose,” he calls, giving everyone a big grin. He’ll start with the twins. “What’s this I hear about you two people going after the Coyote Girl again? You know it’s not good juju to lay eyes on her, right? I don’t want you out in the woods with this crazy person on the loose.”

GM: The morning bell rings, and adolescent herd mentality takes over as the clique and other milling students head for the main entrance. The clique’s conversations, however, shuffle along beside them.

“Juju?” Griffin asks, while his twin comments, “We still have to build the trap, so no worries.”

“Yeah, Brooks,” Daniel says, “What can you tell us about Mr. One-Armed Craziod?”

Tootsie breaks in, “You now she doesn’t really exist. The Coyote Child. It’s just a superstition that people keep passing on to drum up nut job tourists. I had an aunt who used to dress up as her, and then her dad would sell pictures to the out of town gawkers.”

The twins look at each other, confused and crestfallen. June, meanwhile, says hello to Toby. “So how was the cruise? You went to the Bahamas, right?”

Toby frowns, his head down. “Hot. I got sunburned bad on my first day and had to spend most of it indoors. The food was pretty amazing though,” he says perking up, before frowning again as if he realizes he just made himself the butt of an unspoken joke.

Brook: Brook lets himself be swept away by the tide, but he just keeps smiling. Before he can talk, Tootsie breaks in, talking about the Coyote Child again. After last night, there’s no doubt in his mind something like that could be out there.

“Crazoid, that’s a new one. The suspect is an old white man with no left hand, and he’s dangerous. You’re probably hear more about him in the announcements today.” That said… he always has the keys to his truck in his pocket. Truck, glovebox, weapon. He just hopes he’ll never have to use it.

“Far as the Coyote Child goes? Much as I’ve been through the woods, I don’t mess around with that kind of stuff.” Hearing June go and talk to Toby about the cruise though? It’s pretty exciting.

“We should talk more about the cruise, yeah! Sun was probably too much after being in Witiko Falls so long, but how was getting out for awhile? The air taste sweeter?”

GM: Tootsie takes the opening and runs with it. “It was incredible. Seabreeze and salt-water. Drinking from coconuts, swimming with dolphins, amazing buffets, and nightly shows! It was just what we needed!”

Her brother’s frown grows. “No, it was what Mom wanted–so she could creep on some new geezer and suck up his money after he croaks. Didn’t you wonder why it seemed like a parade of senior citizens?”

Tootsie laughs uncomfortably and literally tries to wave away her moody brother’s accusation. “Now that’s not true, Toby, there was just a reunion of WWII veterans or something.” She shoots her brother a look, then asks the rest of the group. “So what did we miss? Well, beside a B-movie horror trope.”

Brook: Jesus that went off quickly. Brook makes a bit of a ‘yeesh’ face to himself. “Uh… a bit, actually. Cindy Crowshoe’s mother passed away and there was a gas leak or something at the hospital?” Looking to the rest of the group, he sees if anyone else has anything before speaking. “Besides that, just… life.”

GM: “I did my first indy plant this Monday,” Griffin adds tentatively–and receives a shove from his brother.

“Oh, and a teacher’s in the hospital.” The last words come from Daniel.

“Yeah, the Aggie teacher, McDermott. I thought you said that was just an upperclassman jerking around a group of underclassmen like usual?” June asks. “Uh, no offense meant, Tootsie,” she adds quickly.

Daniel shakes his head, “Nah, I checked it out. It was in today’s paper. It says he’s in a coma at Mount Pelion. I think it was like a car crash.”

“Is that how the gas leak happened? Like did he crash into the hospital?” Grady asks.

Daniel shakes his head. “No, I think it said it happened out by the cemetery. And it might have been a couple days ago.”

“Shame,” Tootsie says, “I have him for 6th period. He’s a nice guy. A little dorky and way too into animals and farming, but not bad.”

Brook: Brook heard there was a teacher in the hospital. What he didn’t hear was who, just yet. Agriculture isn’t something he’s too interested in, but it was a shame in any case. Maybe they can all do a school thing and send him a card and good vibes.

“Jeez, I hope he’s okay. Coma by the cemetery… did he crash? Or am I going after another elk with big britches this weekend? Or what?” It isn’t like he minds. Hunting elk means he’ll drag the body back into town, and THAT means he can do horn crafts, and his mother will make her amazing jerky.

“Ugh. Speaking of 6th period, I’ll be spending the day in the Chimera. After what happened with poor Leanne Byers, I have in-school suspension. Can’t blame them.” Beyond that, he shoots June and Danny a bit of a ‘hush’ look. He wants to keep the possible expulsion to themselves.

GM: “Leanne?” the sole upperclassman asks. However, the clique doesn’t get a chance to answer as the one-minute bell warns them of home-room’s imminent start.

By the time Brook arrives in Ms. Vosburg’s class for homeroom, sunlight breaks above the mountain, painting the eastern horizon a sleepy red. It reminds Brook of the color one sees when one shuts one’s eyes out in daylight, a rose-flesh shade associated with rest and reverie. Around him, students whisper amongst one another, the susurrus of their voices acting like a lullaby.

Brook: Brook feels himself start to drop already, with the sun poking up over the horizon it’s like a chime that speaks ‘the dark retreats’. Every day is the same, staring at the dawn light. It brings back memories. Bad ones. Struggling, the feeling of burlap, water, and dark. The first light of the day sounds with a soft click from the roof of a truck’s cab. Brook digs his nails into neck as his hand supports his head, forcing him awake and into the real world once again. This is for his mother, he has to do it. Whether it draws blood or not.

GM: He endures. And like a prize-fighter in the ropes, he’s still standing when the bell rings. But another, much longer round is coming.

Hazel: Attila Awakens


Thursday morning, 9 October 1998

Hazel: After Hazel arrives at the library, she unpacks her burrito and takes several hungry bites while looking over her faculty email account for anything new. She logs onto her personal account, attilathehazel@rocketmail.com, a few moments later. She expects something from Lindsay, and possibly Michael.

She also looks over the two emails, drafted but not sent to her parents last night, lying in the trash folder. After a moment of thought, she permanently deletes them. Permanent insofar as such things can be over the internet, anyways.

Breakfast is good. The hotel menu promised, “Applewood Smoked Bacon, Roasted Poblano Chiles, Crispy Hash Browns & Scrambled Eggs tossed with Cheddar & Jack Cheese, Rolled in a Large Flour Tortilla. Served with Pico de Gallo & Blistered Tomato Salsa,” and it delivers, even if the food’s now a little cool. Compared to her mother’s cocktail, Hazel is expecting a much fuller day and eats accordingly. Conscientious to avoid getting grease over the expensive desktop’s keyboard (not purchased by her mother after all, it looks like), she eats from the takeout box with a fork, pausing several times to slurp some water from the drinking fountain. The seasonal fruit cup of blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries provides a pleasantly light and sweet ending to the meal as she scrolls through her inboxes.

At least I can’t get any more odd emails from Lance. Guilt immediately stabs through her mind at the thought. I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant that at least one of the advantages was… I should just stop talking. Thinking.

The menu just said ‘seasonal’ to sound more attractive. Blackberries are not in season right now. That’s more late summer.

While she’s in the process of checking her digital correspondences, Hazel also cracks open her personal laptop and checks the dummy Nostrum account to see whether Marvin Swenson received her email. She doesn’t plan to dig around on his computer while she has so much ahead for her day, but she wants at least some progress to report to Uncle Leo.

GM: True to his word, there is an email from Michael. Sent approximately an hour after their parting, the digital missive reiterates his enjoyment of their conversation, however brief and seemingly incidental it was, and inquires whether he “might have the honor of her company once more.” Specifically, he asks if she might join him for a stargazing boat-ride on the Green Lady this Friday, as the forecast calls for clear skies. If the date is amenable to her, he offers to pick her up at any address of her choosing at 8 pm. Hazel notes that the email, though digitally signed by Michael, was sent from the account of his late grandmother.

Lindsay also keeps her word by sending her a compressed file of her unabridged thesis. Unzipping the document, Hazel reads its title: Beholder of the Eye: A Phenomenological Study of Transcultural Form Constants through the Comparative Use of Phencyclidine, Mescaline, and Lysergic Acid Diethylamide. Like its title, Lindsay’s thesis is a mouthful, and it will take some time to chew. However, as Hazel swallows the last of her comparatively delicious breakfast, she discovers that Marvin Swenson has not opened his email. For the moment, it seems Troy remains awake, and the Greeks must wait. After all, it is still early in the day.

Moving on to her own work email, Hazel finds three emails. One from Murff, one from Agnes, and one from Uncle Leo.

Hazel: Hazel pauses mid-chew as she looks over the first email. A date. Well, a boat ride down the Green Lady is a convenient locale to get away from any potential observers, and the date isn’t poor ‘cover’ if she’s currently being watched. At the same time, Hazel is leery going somewhere alone with Michael when she yet knows so little of his–and his fellows’–motivations and intentions towards her.

Ugh. I’ll need to stim a bit this afternoon to get some real answers.

For now, Hazel sends back an email replying in the affirmative to the date. She nearly states that she isn’t sure what her afternoon schedule will look like, so she’ll send him a later email with the address he can pick her up–before remembering that she gave him the Sweeneys’ phone number and even explained that yes, she really did live there.

Careless. There isn’t any paper trail connecting me to the house. Should’ve just given him my email.

It’s a minor advantage, and a dedicated investigator could probably find out that’s where she lives anyways. Still, it irks her to have needlessly given up. Nothing to be done for now. She names her Red Louse address as the place Michael can pick her up.

Hazel gratefully skims over Lindsay’s thesis. She’ll read it this afternoon as part of her research–and send a return email containing her own findings, which her former neighbor will hopefully find useful.Patience, Odysseus. Your soldiers did spend all afternoon in that horse.

Hazel opens each of the work emails next, starting with Leo’s.

GM: The vice principal’s email was sent last evening at 8:32 pm. The subject simply reads: John. The email itself is otherwise blank, save for an untitled attachment.

Hazel: Hazel frowns and opens it.

GM: With double click, the attachment opens, and Hazel’s screen goes white like snow. Cold like snow. Soft like snow.

She falls in. And finds herself in a snowy field of pine trees. The air tastes like Christmas morning. A life-long oneiromancer, Hazel recognizes that she is asleep, and that the surrounding wintry forest is a dreamscape.

Hazel: Even if it’s from someone you trust, always check the file attachment before you open it, Hazel can’t help but wryly think. She scans her surroundings. If it is, in fact, from Leo–it’s possible his email account has been hacked–he has some purpose in sending her here.

GM: The snow-boughed trees rise up to block the sky, but light filters through the forest from all angles. The shadows all point towards her, leaving her disoriented.

Hazel: Hazel frowns, but it soon abates. This is a dream-realm, where mind truly reigns over matter. Lucid dreaming is not simply recognition of the fact one is dreaming–it is the power to shape and impose one’s will upon such mindscapes. This is her mind. Hazel concentrates and projects her vision of what that should be outwards, willing the obfuscating trees to shrink in height.

GM: The trees shrink–but so does the lucid dreamer. The landscape, however, changes as the spaces between the trees widen. In the now clearer snow, she spots a trail of bread-crumbs.

Hazel: Hazel glances at them, and then in a flick of amusement, is dressed in the romanticized garb of an early 19th century German peasant girl.

GM: The bread-crumbs are fragments of an androgynous gingerbread man-woman broken up into tiny pieces. She can smell the warm ginger-dough and scent of candy-drops. But her change also brings about another alteration to the terrain:

There is an odor of something red whose shade is so dark it is nearly black. She cannot, or perhaps subconsciously forces herself to not, see the source of the foul stench. The gingerbread-crumbs remain. Though not for long, as a black coyote sheds the shape of a tree shadow and begins to gobble up the trail.

Hazel: Hazel frowns. This is no time to be a peasant. This is her dream-realm, and here, she is queen. She flicks her hand once more. As the flash of scintillating light dissipates, Hazel stands garbed in a voluminous gold and silver dress with an ermine-trimmed mantle. A diamond-studded crown set with a single gleaming ruby rests upon her brow. Catherine the Great died only shortly before the Grimms published their work and seems a fitting choice of form to mimic.

catherine-the-great-coronoation-1.jpg

Hazel draws herself up to her full regal height–so much taller, it seems, within her dreams–and sharply pronounces in an authoritative tone that brooks no defiance or disobedience,

HALT!”

GM: The black coyote, whose eyes are a pale ghostly blue, halts as commanded. It stares up at the dream-queen, then slinks away into the shadow, licking its lips.

Hazel: Hazel haughtily watches the animal depart. She nearly resumes her stride, following the breadcrumbs–but a queen does not walk. Instead, she mounts the snow-white horse that was supposedly a steed to Catherine, and a good deal more. She lightly flecks her crop against its flank and the stallion rides off.

GM: The shrunken queen rides through the shrunken trees. The trail of gingerbread crumbs is fresh and easy to follow. It is midway through her journey that Hazel recognizes that her horse is cantering backwards. But her stallion bleeds forward, struck as it is by a black fletched arrow. There is a black huntsman in the woods. Somewhere. She cannot see him, but he smells of stale popcorn and cotton candy, varnished wood, wet cat, and the rancid stink of fear-sweat.

Fear drives the stallion backward–as its blood drips faster forward. The queen reaches the end of the trail. A small tree sits amongst the giants. Like its larger peers, it is covered in snow. Her mother’s necklaces are strung around it like glinting garland, and her father’s shiny badges hang like Christmas ornaments from the tannenbaum. A single presents sits below the tree, wrapped in the pages of a book, with a golden ribbon that simultaneously shines from one and all angles. There is a small tag attached. It reads: Merry Christmas, from Leo.

Hazel: Hazel sharply glances about her surroundings for the unseen attacker. Catherine the Great would likely seek retaliation or flight, but Hazel remains Hazel, and curiosity remains her foremost drive. A livery-garbed footman with a droopy mustache bows low as he presents the gift to the queen, who perfunctorily unties the ribbon and opens her present.

GM: Around her, the odor of dark red intensifies. The trees. Their bark is slashed. Sap oozes outward. Dark red. In spirals. The footman, meanwhile, presents the open box. The empty box. She falls in. The forest disappears.

Another dreamscape emerges. She is in a doctor’s office or lab. It remains frigid, but it is a clinical cold. There are no more warm gingerbread crumbs, but there is a hot oven. A crematorium that is shut but roars with flames that lick at the glass. X-rays and medical test results are clipped to the walls.

Hazel: Leo’s dreamscape now.

GM: A single metal slab stands in the middle of the room. Upon it, rests a brain. Her uncle is there as well. He, like Hazel, is dressed in a white physician’s coat, his arms and hands covered by elbow-long industrial black rubber gloves. He reaches those gloves into a large metal bowl and pulls out a mass of what looks like gray-colored ground beef. He begins mashing and massaging the matter into patties which he places on a gold platter. “We are here to discuss Layne Tuttle,” the gray-eyed man intones.

Hazel: Hazel spares a glance for her new attire. She preferred her royal regalia, but this is Leo’s dream-realm, and it’s not just polite to abide by its parameters. It’s best to simply go with the flow in dreams.

Besides. The spirals. This is no time to be playing dress-up.

“My compliments on the means you have chosen to ensure our privacy, Vice Principal, " Hazel states as she approaches him. “I will first ask if that remains the proper title by which to address you. Our bodies, I presume, remain in Witiko Falls High School even as our minds have translocated elsewhere. Perhaps here more than any other place, there is great significance in names and symbols.”

GM: “We were in Witiko Falls High School, where you and I are now is a mystery other than the one we are here to discuss.”

Hazel: “Very well. I shall address you as I would outside our workplace. Continuing our earlier conversational thread, you had last asked me what observations I have made regarding Layne Tuttle.”

GM: “Yes,” he says scooping up another glob of fatty grey matter, “Please proceed.”

Hazel: “Her short-term memory is all-but nonexistent. She relies upon written aids to compensate for this mental shortcoming.” Hazel steps up alongside Leo and begins smooshing gray patties onto gold plates with her own rubber-gloved hands. Don’t just abide by the dream’s narrative. Participate in it. Expand on it.

“Her long-term memory has fared better–certain conspicuous gaps aside. She retained her positive feelings towards me even as we repeated, near-verbatim, conversations we had previously held mere hours ago. She also experiences fleeting episodes during which she manifests a far greater degree of cognitive aptitude. I am not fully certain what triggers these episodes, though I have observed several pieces of circumstantial evidence that may point towards what does. On two occasions, she became lucid when we discussed her… present condition, which upset her. Her lucidity faded when she was emotionally comforted.”

Hazel pauses, schlopping another macabre patty onto a glinting plate. “Here I will no longer observe, but hypothesize. I suspect that her suicide was not an action she committed of her own free will, but an impulse imposed on her by ROSEWATER–or some other malign force, for reasons I am yet unaware of. During one of her periods of lucidity, she was shocked by the notion that she would ever perform such an action. Firearms are also an atypical suicide method for females next to drug overdosing.”

Another brain-patty wetly smacks onto a plate. “Here I will no longer observe or hypothesize, but simply express my personal sentiments. I feel very sorry for her, Uncle Leo. Whatever ROSEWATER did has cost her much of her mental faculties, and caused her significant emotional pain. I would like to help her, if I may. Beyond offering simple… friendship, I have considered taking her to the Falls. Rumor holds they possess miraculous healing properties. I am yet uncertain if my intended actions are the proper recourse, however. Further data is needed.” Hazel looks up from the gray matter between her gloved hands and regards Uncle Leo expectantly.

GM: Her uncle listens attentively to Hazel’s observations, interpretations, and speculations. By the time she is finished, as are their patties, Leo is smiling, clearly pleased. He peels off the long black gloves, revealing an identical, but clean, pair underneath. He releases the former into a waste bin full of other identical gloves. He leaves the golden platter for now on a counter and proceeds to the main table with its brain. “Astute observations that are all the more impressive given your short exposure to the subject.”

Hazel: “The subject matter–and subject–are of great interest to me, Uncle Leo.”

GM: Leo stares intently at the brain on the table. Blood pulses in the spiraling folds of fat and grey matter. “Have you ever considered the problem of consciousness?”

Hazel: Hazel is quiet for a long moment. “I will concede that she appears a great deal happier when she is not in possession of her full mental faculties. It is said that knowledge that can be a burden. So can, evidently, simple intelligence.”

GM: Leo does not move his eyes from the pulsing brain. “I speak of something far more fundamental and transcendent than intelligence. I speak of consciousness, one of the grand mysteries which have perplexed the great scholars and philosophers for generations. As an empiricist, have you ever considered that there is a problem? Not only how the subjective self comes to be, but how it emerges again and again with continuity despite periods of supposed unconsciousness.” He adds, “Namely, sleep.”

Hazel: “Those with the proper knowledge and will may continue to exert their consciousness during periods of supposed unconsciousness.” Hazel does not need to gesture at their surroundings as she likewise discards her own soiled gloves into the waste bin. “I had not considered the problem to any great extent before. Layne, however, is prompting me to do so now.”

“It is almost as if she exists in a state of ‘sleep’ that certain stressful contexts may rouse her from. In much the same manner that violently shaking you, when you slept, would return you to full consciousness, ‘shaking’ Layne with upsetting memories appears to do the same.”

GM: “But rouse her to what, save it be what we describe as ‘herself’ which supposes not simply a measure of intelligence but personhood or consciousness. Newton wrote, ‘to determine by what modes or actions light produceth in our minds the phantasm of colour is not so easy’. This from the same man who wrote, ‘I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people’.”

“Mill elaborated, ‘Now I am far from pretending that it may not be capable of proof, or that it is not an important addition to our knowledge if proved, that certain motions in the particles of bodies are the conditions of the production of heat or light; that certain assignable physical modifications of the nerves may be the conditions not only of our sensations or emotions, but even of our thoughts; that certain mechanical and chemical conditions may, in the order of nature, be sufficient to determine to action the physiological laws of life’. ‘All I insist upon, in common with every thinker who entertains any clear idea of the logic of science, is, that it shall not be supposed that by proving these things one step would be made towards a real explanation of heat, light, or sensation; or that the generic peculiarity of those phenomena can be in the least degree evaded by any such discoveries, however well established. Let it be shown, for instance, that the most complex series of physical causes and effects succeed one another in the eye and in the brain to produce a sensation of colour; rays falling on the eye, refracted, converging, crossing one another, making an inverted image on the retina, and after this a motion—let it be a vibration, or a rush of nervous fluid, or whatever else you are pleased to suppose, along the optic nerve—a propagation of this motion to the brain itself, and as many more different motions as you choose; still, at the end of these motions, there is something which is not motion, there is a feeling or sensation of color’.”

‘“Whatever number of motions we may be able to interpolate, and whether they be real or imaginary, we shall still find, at the end of the series, a motion antecedent and a colour consequent. The mode in which any one of the motions produces the next, may possibly be susceptible to explanation by some general law of motion: but the mode in which the last motion produces the sensation of colour, cannot be explained by any law of motion; it is the law of colour: which is, and must always remain, a peculiar thing. Where our consciousness recognises between two phenomena an inherent distinction; where we are sensible of a difference which is not merely of degree, and feel that no adding one of the phenomena to itself would produce the other; any theory which attempts to bring either under the laws of the other must be false; though a theory which merely treats the one as a cause or condition of the other, may possibly be true’."

Leo points to the brain’s optic nerve. “Do you see?”

Hazel: “In several senses.” Hazel waits expectantly. Uncle Leo seems to be building to some larger point.

GM: “Yes, but vision transcends sensation. Consciousness is about perception,” he replies fervently. “While Mill meandered, Huxley cut to the heart of the matter in one line, namely, ‘How it is that any thing so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as the result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djinn when Aladdin rubbed his lamp’.”

Hazel: “Here we begin to venture into the realm of the physical sciences–and possibly philosophy, if we are to move from neuroscience to such ephemeral questions as the nature of consciousness and personal identity. For all their present relevance to Layne Tuttle, I am not prepared to answer them when greater thinkers than I have long sought to. I can only observe that, likely as a result of ROSEWATER’s attentions, Layne Tuttle is not who she once was.”

GM: “But it is an intellectual presumption upon which our discussion rests. If physicalism is to be defended, the phenomenological features must themselves be given a physical account. But when we examine their subjective character it seems that such a result is impossible. The reason is that every subjective phenomenon is essentially connected with a single point of view, and it seems inevitable that an objective, physical theory will abandon that point of view. Conscious experience is a fundamental constituent of the universe, a panpsychism or panexperientialism. The rich inner life is not logically reducible to the functional properties of physical processes.”

“But for now, we may squint our eyes and pretend the emperor is clothed.” He rolls away the stainless steel table and its pulsing brain. “Let us ignore the nakedness and discuss the fabric, heft, and cut of the illusory raiment.” He motions to the X-rays and medical test results clipped to the illuminated walls. He points to a particular series of X-rays, each of which is labeled with Layne’s name. “Layne Tuttle shot herself through the temple. The bullet passing through here,” he gestures through a line in the clearly ravaged brain-scan. “The primary neural region damaged was the hippocampus, which is considered the physical substratum of memory. But not all memory.”

Hazel: Hazel considers. “I have not attempted to measure Layne’s semantic memory, but circumstantial evidence would again suggest that it has fared better. She retains enough memory of general facts to hold a debit card and manage her own finances.”

GM: “On the contrary, it is her semantic and episodic memories which remain the most devastated. What you speak of is her procedural memory.”

Hazel: Hazel inclines her head as her terminological error is pointed out. “I clearly should not attempt to speak of subjects I know little of.”

GM: Leo nods his head, clearly more pleased that she is eager to learn than that she has need of it. “Which is fascinating.” He steps closer, the glow of the backlit medical glass reflecting in his eyes. “Due to her injuries, she suffers both anterograde and retrograde amnesia. The latter is restricted to a few months prior to her attempted suicide. With the exception of a few other blank spots which skip across her lifespan like a well-thrown stone upon water, her long-term memories, semantic, episodic, and procedural all remain intact.”

“Once again, we shall for the moment ignore that this intactness, though the norm of human experience, remains utterly unexplained by empirical reductionism. But,” he continues, “Layne’s anterograde amnesia is far more severe. Notably, she has no de facto short-term or long-term memory when it comes to semantic learning. She is instead limited to her sensoria.”

Hazel: “Emails should also not be able to induce immediate REM sleep in their recipients,” Hazel states. “I am well accustomed to discussing the details of the emperor’s raiment over the fact of its existence. I can also personally confirm such observations regarding Layne. I have instructed her–or at least attempted to instruct her–how to purchase clothing over the internet. The process was arduous.”

GM: Leo smiles. “If we enter the realm of ‘should’ then we are no longer discussing positive ontologies, but normative ones. But perhaps now I digress,” he adds. “Yes, if you were to tell her the name of the current president each and every day for the remainder of the year, she would never remember or learn that name. As that entails both the encoding and retrieval of a semantic memory.”

Hazel: “Nor would she seem likely to even remember one’s attempts at instruction. But I would not label it a complete waste of time.”

GM: “Yes, precisely because as you have noticed, she is not incapable of forming memories. To illustrate, consider her use of her clipboard. She can develop, albeit with some difficulty, new procedural memories, particularly those involving subconscious automaticity. For example, consider how you learned to ride a bicycle. The ability to describe the operation of the velocipede is orthogonal to one’s ability to physically operate its apparatus. It is, as it is sometimes called, motor memory.”

Hazel: “She would also appear well-suited to the task of cataloging books, even if the initial instructive process would prove arduous for her teacher.”

GM: “Quite so,” he says in regards to the keen prognosis by his astute pupil. He takes her to another section of the wall, where a video projector clicks on and plays a series of tapes. They show a younger, though still post-teen, Layne in a nondescript room. A person in a white lab coat passes her a paper littered with numbered and lettered dots. She is provided a pen. “Have you every seen this document before?” asks the proctor.

“No, never,” Layne replies quickly.

Hazel: “I had wondered where she was during the years between her suicide and employment at the high school.”

GM: “Observe,” Leo reprimands lightly as the examiner then says, “With the pen provided connect the dots in a sequential alpha-numerical order. Meaning, start here with A, then proceed to 1, then to B, then to 2, then to C, then to 3, and so forth until you reach Z.”

Leo taps the screen and the video halts. “Query: will she be able to complete the task? And why or why not?”

Hazel: “She will be able to. As you have stated, her long-term memories remain intact. She will be able to grasp the connection between B and 2, and so on. Her short-term memory is not sufficiently deteriorated that she will forget she is supposed to be drawing lines while in the midst of doing so.”

GM: “Let us then resume observing and test that hypothesis.” He taps the screen and the video reawakens. Even to the asocial Hazel, it is painful to watch.

Hazel: Hazel looks no less personally frustrated as the tape resumes. She, too, has great difficulty ‘connecting the dots’ between less familiar concepts.

GM: Yes, Layne eventually completes the task, but it is mentally excruciating to watch and no doubt to proctor and perform. She clearly recalls alphabeticity and cardinality, but as she searches over the paper for the shuffled letters and numbers, she keeps forgetting what she is supposed to do. Each time, the proctor repeats the instructions. Each time, she says she understands and begins to complete the task, connecting one or two dots, and then becomes lost as she searches for the next symbol.

The video flickers like an old projector as it reaches the end of its reel. Leo then motions for Hazel to regard the rest of the wall. It is filled with the same sheet of scrambled numbers and letters. Each one has been filled out with the same pen. Each one has a prolix medical label attached to it, with Layne’s name and the date. There are over a hundred trials, a hundred sheets, a hundred days. The first are sloppy, uncertain, and marked with lengthy times. But over time, the geometric pattern which resembles a snake swallowing its own tail, is made with surer, swifter strokes.

Hazel: “‘She can develop, albeit with some difficulty, new procedural memories,’” Hazel recites.

GM: Leo then clicks on a new video. “Her last trial,” he says by way of introduction. Layne sits in an identical nondescript room. The previously shaved spots on Layne’s skull, however, are now thick with hair. A person in a white lab coat, once again with their back to the camera, passes her the paper littered with numbered and lettered dots. She is once again provided a pen. “Have you every seen this document before?” asks the proctor.

“No, never,” Layne replies quickly.

The examiner then says, “With the pen provided connect the dots in a sequential alpha-numerical order. Meaning, start here with A, then proceed to 1, then to B, then to 2, then to C, then to 3, and so forth until you reach Z. Do you understand the instructions?”

Layne nods.

“Proceed,” the proctor instructs.

Layne effortlessly traces the pattern, her hands and eyes moving as if in an automatic fashion.

“8.29 seconds,” the proctor says for the benefit of the recording. “Layne, was this task easy or hard?”

“Um, really easy.”

“But you believe you have never before seen this sheet or done this task?”

“Yeah, I’ve never seen this before.” She seems to think, a frown emerging on her face. The frown starts to relax as she adds, “I guess… I guess I must just be really good at this stuff.”

Hazel: Hazel waits until the recording is finished, then looks back to Leo. “I find it unlikely that ROSEWATER would have willingly released such a tape to you. I will conjecture that Layne was released from their custody to a mental institution, but I still find it curious you would come to possess such a tape given your lack of familial relationship to the patient. I will have further questions when we are no longer discussing the state of her mental faculties.”

GM: “Yes, the present discussion is delimited to her condition–not the epistemology whereby I or you came to understand it.” He turns back to the video, rewinding it with a swipe, back to when Layne frowns. “Speculate: what is her conscious experience at this moment?”

Hazel: “She appears frustrated. She has no memory of completing such a sheet before, and no reason to believe she is ‘skilled’ at a new task she would otherwise find difficult.”

GM: “Precisely!” Leo says, clearly appreciative that Hazel is connecting the dots so quickly. “And here we return to the emperor’s clothes,” he says and swipes the wall, causing the room to rotate so they face the first set of brain-scans. “Layne’s prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain deemed responsible for executive functioning–such as the ability to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social control–is intact. Consequently, she is able to reason that she should not be able to complete this novel, complex task in such a short time-frame.”

Hazel: The term is one well-familiar to Hazel. She has heard from many psychologists that she has issues with her own executive functioning.

GM: “This triggers an aversive emotional state. Which leads us to our next article of clothing: the amygdala.” Leo points to two almond shaped portions of the brain. “The amygdala, coupled with these areas and pathways–,” he says pointing at several nearby neural regions and connections, “–constitute the limbic system which has as one of its primary functions being the formation and regulation of emotional processes.”

Hazel: “Or more simply, it is the part of the brain concerned with fear.”

GM: “Yes, the amygdala’s functional connection to fear is well-known, but the limbic system is connected to other emotional states as well. Which leads us to the intriguing phenomenon that is Layne’s emotional memory.” He points to a region directly below the frontal cortex. “The olfactory bulb, for instance, is involved in subconscious emotional memories triggered by scent. These connections remain undamaged in Layne’s brain.”

Hazel: “Layne recalls that she is friends with me, even if she does not recall our prior conversations together,” Hazel nods. “Some would make the argument that is the most essential portion of the brain to remain intact.”

GM: Leo holds that contention for a moment, but does not directly respond to it. Instead, he presses on, “Her prefrontal cortex can process that she has a positive affective reaction to your image, sound, and smell, but she cannot semantically or episodically recall why she should have that valence. So, she reasons, you two must be friends.”

Hazel: “Some would. I would not,” Hazel states. “But I digress from the subject at hand.”

GM: “Perhaps not,” Leo says thoughtfully. “Why do you suggest you would not; whereas, she clearly does?”

Hazel: “Layne is condemned to live an existence of unconstrained emotion, unguided by reason. I would not be content to harbor positive feelings towards someone if I did not know why I felt as I did. It is one of the reasons I so pity her.”

GM: “Ah, but recall that her prefrontal cortex is unharmed! She is not adrift in a sea of unfettered emotions, but must contend and grapple with merciless rationality.”

Hazel: “Layne is capable of making rational decisions. She does not remember why she makes the decisions that she does.”

GM: “Although her mind recalls that she should be able to recall the why, that she once possessed that faculty, and her current deficits are thus a source of great pain.”

Hazel: “It is a terrible fate, Uncle Leo. And now that we have discussed the nature of Layne’s present state in some depth, this would seem a natural conversational point to begin discussing the circumstances that led to it—and, possibly from there, how her state might be rectified.”

GM: “There is one more point to consider. Her choice.”

Hazel: “To work as an assistant librarian? I am aware of no other significant ones she has been faced with,” the literal-minded dreamer asks.

GM: Leo looks down somewhat disapprovingly at his pupil’s lack of insight. “Consciousness. Each day the dreamer awakens nearly anew, a pseudo-tabula rasa on which to write. Yet, she does not embrace change, but seeks stasis and continuity. Consciousness may be affected, altered, but it has inertia. A resting state to which it seeks to return and will push back to re-attain.”

Leopold walks over to the golden platter with the brain-patties. “Ponder that paradox. Becomes its pupil, then its master, and you will gain great power.” He opens the crematorium, and shoves in the tray, closing the hellish furnace. “But as always, there is a price.”

Hazel: “I have volunteered to pay it. My mind has not changed.”

GM: Leo stares into the fire. His tone is grave, but puissant: “Entitas ipsa involvit aptitudinem ad extorquendum certum assensum.”He then opens the furnace and sadly regards the charred brain-mater. He scraps the burnt meat off the inexplicably untouched tray into a trash can. And then with an equal somberness, he picks up the pulsing brain and places it alone in the center of the golden tray. He then presses into the living brain’s pre-frontal cortex, hard. As he forcibly draws the shape of the cross, blood vessels burst and a terrible pain stabs through Hazel’s head.

The librarian wakes up, her forehead throbbing from the impact of her unconscious skull smacking the computer screen.

The first period bell rings.

Hazel: Hazel groans and rubs her head. Answers have come–but as always, they bring still further questions.

Hazel: Well, it’s another day on the job. Hazel clocks in and opens up the next two emails from Agnes and Murff to see if they are anything work-related.

GM: Although any other email would be mundane compared to Leo’s, Agnes’ is particularly quotidian. Sent this morning, it details her itinerary for the day. It’s packed.

Hazel: Fuck.

GM: Nothing exceptional, but she has every period full, save her lunch hour.

Hazel: It looks like I’ll have to finish up that research after school. Or between other things.

GM: Looking over the list, she may have time to squeeze in some personal work, as the classes of seniors and juniors who will be accompanied by their teachers. Consequently, Hazel will not be expected to singly manage or direct, only assist as needed.

Hazel: Okay, that’s better. I’m not a teacher. Let them manage their own classes.

GM: She will, however, have an assistant for the day. One Brook Barnes. Agnes spells out the details of the sophomore’s in-school suspension and his responsibilities.

Hazel: Hazel looks it over. She doesn’t have Layne on board as an assistant yet, so that’s very well. And it’s a fairly lenient punishment he’s getting, at least in her estimation, being required to read a Bradbury short story. She moves on to the email from Murff.

GM: Murff’s email is far sweeter and shorter. Haven’t seen you around or in the lounge. How’s it going?

Hazel: Ah, yes. Social obligations. She can fit those in tomorrow. Today she’s got too much on her plate. Still, Murff’s taught her for two semesters and compared her to Emily when last they spoke, so her return email shouldn’t be any surprise.

Getting in the groove. Have a class every period today and need lunch for time to myself. Hope to run into you in the lounge tomorrow. Haven’t forgotten about Fleischer! Fingers crossed his class is one of mine today.

GM: No sooner does she send it, does she receive another email from Agnes.

Hazel: It is duly opened. This really is so much better than talking over the phone, she thinks appreciatively.

GM: It’s a forwarded email from the county sheriff department, a PSA that is in turn a forwarded message from the U.S. Marshals office in Boise.

_This is an emergency alert. A man has escaped from the State Psychiatric Hospital. He is considered armed and extremely dangerous. The man is Caucasian, appears to be in his late sixties to seventies, white-haired, and green-eyed, and is missing his left hand. If you see a man matching this description, do not engage_. Call 911 immediately.The sheriff’s email adds that the fugitive has not been spotted in Witiko Falls, but that the message is being forwarded as a courtesy to the community and U.S. Marshals.

Hazel: She makes a mental note to ask her dad for the full story during lunch. Meanwhile, she pulls up the handbooks and gets in some more reading until the students arrive.

GM: She barely opens the digital document before the first class shuffles in. The hydra is large, noisy, and many-headed.

Hazel: She readies her sword and torch.

Kurt: Mind’s Eye


Thursday morning, 9 October 1998

GM: Kurt awakens hours later as sunlight slides through the broken-in door. As his non-bespectacled eyes open, Kurt sees Agent Ridley sitting beside him, vigilant but clearly haggard from a lack of sleep. “Morning, sunshine. You dream of any mama-sans for me?”

Kurt: Kurt reflexively feels his neck as he wakes up to Ridley; he massages the bruised area gently. “I only dreamed of crazy mamas.” He gives Ridley a lopsided, lazy smirk. A little bit of humor is the only way to move on from last night’s drama; he’ll make sure to avoid Chippy, or Hickory, or whatever, from now on. “How was your sleep?” he asks. He sits up and grabs his glasses, putting the spectacles on his head to get a better look at Ridley’s face.

GM: “Another corollary to Rule No. 3 is ‘sleep when you can, but when you can’t–don’t.”

Kurt: “Sorry.” He says it quietly. Kurt looks guilty.

GM: He smirks away the question. “How you feeling?”

Kurt: “I am okay,” Kurt answers, meeting Ridley’s eyes once again. “I can’t say I am happy about what happened last night, maybe I messed up–really, no idea–but I am willing to let it go and let bygones be bygones.”

GM: “Rule No. 2.”

As Kurt feels the tender bruises around his neck and head, he notices the latter has been re-bandaged.

Kurt: “Thanks for changing my bandages.”

GM: “Today, we’re going to take it easy. Frankly, ace, you look like a blue-head bag of smashed asshole.” Something his Texan drawl makes the later sound not so bad.

Kurt: “Imagine how I feel.” He smiles.

GM: “No thanks,” he says rising, cracking his back and shoulders. “I’m going to go grab us some chow.”

Kurt: “Thanks,” Kurt replies, resting as he lay on his back and stares at the ceiling for a moment. He wonders if he can see faces in the lines of the ceiling, looking back at him, questioningly. How did I find myself in this mess?

GM: As Kurt stares up at the rounded aluminum ceiling, he realizes something: There are no faces staring back at him. Not even his.

Kurt: Where’s my reflection? Kurt stares upward, stunned silent for a few more seconds. A cold, weird shiver runs up his spine.

GM: He clearly sees the reflection of everything else. The bed, the chairs, the table. But not himself.

Kurt: What the fuck!? Kurt’s breathing becomes shallow as he continues to search frantically for his own reflection; he remains quiet in the physical world, alas within his own psyche a maelstrom of worry and fear bluster through. Kurt quickly sits up, searching for a mirror, needing to clarify that it’s just the RV’s ceiling playing tricks with his eyes.

GM: The reflective aluminum shell of the RV is everywhere–but his reflection, and only his reflection, is nowhere to be seen. As Kurt riffles through the nearby items and compartments for another mirror, Ridley returns, heaping mess-cans in his hands. The older man can’t quite keep a hint of suspicion out of his voice as he asks, “Looking for a toothbrush, ace?”

Kurt: “I need a mirror,” Kurt says, looking genuinely scared and worried. “Something’s wrong. I can’t see my reflection!”

GM: “Er…” Ridley stammers. “Come again?”

Kurt: “You heard me!” he calls back. He turns to Ridley with a frown. “I can’t see my reflection! I need a mirror!” he mutters under his breath as he returns back to his search.

GM: Ridley stares at Kurt, then at the reflective walls of the RV. “Ace, your reflection’s right there. If you want to shave, I can get you a mirror after we eat.”

Kurt: Kurt looks where Ridley is indicating.

GM: “Chippy made eggs and bacon.”

Kurt: His eyes narrow.

GM: “I think to apologize.” He sniffs the mess-plate. “Or maybe poison us,” he says grinning.

Kurt: Kurt doesn’t laugh; he stands there staring at the reflective walls of the RV, searching frantically for his own reflection in all this madness. Searching for himself. Where am I? “Who am I?” he asks quietly, whispering to himself.

GM: “Come on,” Ridley urges, “Let’s get you some fresh air. Also, Rule No. 1.”

Kurt: Kurt tries to push the thought aside and act normal; nonetheless, he gets the impression this isn’t over. He tears his eyes away from the reflective surfaces and focuses on what’s real and what’s in front of him: he looks at Ridley. And he forces a smile. “Okay,” he says, nodding his head, hobbling over. “Rule number one, time to eat!” he replies like a good soldier.

GM: “That’a boy,” Ridley says, passing Kurt a plate of fire-cooked scrambled eggs and bacon. The former then helps the latter hobble out to a lawn chair. Ridley tosses Kurt a blanket and steaming cup of coffee to ward off the late morning chill. He plops another paper bib in his shirt collar and begins scarfing down the food.

Kurt: Kurt picks at his food slowly; he doesn’t quaff it down nearly as fast as the much larger man. He looks tentatively around for anybody else who might join them: the ‘Wizard’, Chippy, or the woman with the beehive hairdo. “What is everybody else doing?” he asks Ridley, curiously.

GM: “Out and about. We need to see who goes looking for the rabbit when he pops down a hole.” His smirk deepens his crows’ feet. “But if you’re feeling bored, don’t you fret: I had all night to drum up ways to train a gimp-legged recruit.”

Kurt: Kurt pauses in the middle of a bite; he then swallows and mirrors the same lazy smirk. “What did you have in mind?”

GM: “Well, for starters, I’m going to have you memorize the cut and color of Chippy’s panties. Each and every one of them. Well, besides the one she’s wearing.” He thinks a moment. “Unless she’s going commando.” His grin could crack granite. But despite that impish smile, Kurt senses that his mentor isn’t kidding.

And after breakfast, he discovers that his premonition is all too accurate.

GM: Back in the woods, Kurt is sitting down in a lawn-chair, his eyes shut fast, and a notepad and pencil in his lap. “All right, ace,” comes Ridley’s nearby drawl, “This trick comes from a Limey I knew, though he used knickknacks rather than lacy knickers. When I say ‘go’, you open your eyes. You’ll have 10 seconds to try and memorize the location, cut, and color of all Chippy’s under-things. After my 10-count, you’ll look down and write whatever you can remember about those details on the pad. Then, you’ll close your eyes again, and I’ll grade it. Under no circumstances are you to peek, as that brings us to Ridley’s Rule No. 5: Shoot straight, but it you have to cheat, never do it on your own dime. Understand?”

Kurt: “Yes. I can cheat other people, but don’t cheat myself.” Kurt then adds with a nervous laugh, “This won’t end with Chippy murdering both of us in our sleeps, will it?”

GM: “Probably,” Ridley chuckles, “But remember Rule No. 2? Let’s just say that I really need to poke the Beast. Also, her panties were the only thing I could find that had the sufficient number, overall similar shape, and diversity of color and cut.”

Kurt: “Of course,” Kurt answers. “When you say it like that, this is just a totally innocent exercise.”

GM: “Yeah… but consider it an incentive on mastering this task quickly. Take too long, and she’s likely to come back and kill us.”

Kurt: Kurt nods, taking those words more seriously than anything else.

GM: “Any last questions?”

Kurt: “When do we begin?” Kurt asks with a peachy grin.

GM: There is a breath, then, “Go!” Kurt’s eyes open to find the low hanging branches, ground, and brush covered in dozens of differently hued and patterned panties. Ridley immediately starts to count down, “10. 9. 8. 7…”

Kurt: Kurt studies each and every undergarment with the speed and precision only a hormone-filled adolescent could possess–a skill honed by years of peeking on girls with his best friend Wilson–and a skill refined as an AV Club member with a knack for immortalizing times and moments within scandalous photographs and frame–by–frame videos. Kurt’s brow is furrowed, concentrating as hard as can be.

GM: Kurt’s mental camera rapidly clicks again and again as he sees the different panties strung throughout the woods. The sheer number and diversity of the garments is enough to tax the stoutest of minds–and for a hormone-addled male adolescent, their imagery is even more distracting.

“…6. 5. 4. 3. 2. 1. All right, Peeping Tom, put down those peepers and pick up the pencil.”

Kurt: Kurt does as directed with no inclination to cheat; he instead focuses on bringing the images he just saw to his mind’s eye. He hovers the pencil over the notepad as he prepares to scribble down as many details as possible, including diagrams if need be–and being a moderately capable illustrator for his age, the drawings are detailed. It’s almost like Kurt has done this sort of thing before.

GM: When Kurt is done (this time), Ridley picks up the annotated sketch. He looks back and forth between the paper, the woods, and Kurt. “That’s…” he says, looking back and forth again. He has to stop and count to finally notice the errors, so small and subtle they are.

Kurt: Kurt grins knowingly, a cheeky gleam in his eyes. “I have to say I did a lot better than I expected,” Kurt tries to lie, not giving away his secret, “Seeing this is the first time I have ever done something like this.”

GM: “Well I’ll be a damned commie-chimp’s uncle,” Ridley eventually exclaims. “Most recruits take a whole month to get that good. Plus, you’ve a fair hand. I draw like flying monkey shit.” He seems to pause, as if unsure how to continue a training exercise he thought would take up hours instead of ten seconds. Passing the notepad back, he regards the colorfully accented woods. “Damn, son, we’re going to need a lot more panties.” After further reflection, he says, “Okay, but you still fudged up a little, so let’s try it again. Pencil and pad down, eyes closed, ace.” He tears off the prior page, forcing Kurt’s next drawing to be from physical, if not mental, scratch. As before, he gives the go to begin, counts off ten, and waits for Kurt’s rendering.

Kurt: Kurt repeats the same process, only this time his memory is sharper, his rendition is more crisp. He tries to do Ridley proud. Going beyond the task set out before him, he decides to show-off a little: he draws in the leaves, the branches, the bushes, the shrubbery. He even pencils in a bird picking its beak at one of Chippy’s frilly pieces. Kurt is rather quick in his drawing, though; he doesn’t want to take too long in case Chippy gets back. “Done!” he finally says, setting his pencil down and offering the complete sketch (along with written details) for Ridley to inspect.

GM: Ridley takes the sheet, initially confused all the details until his eyes widen in sheer speechless shock.

Kurt: “Okay,” Kurt says, noticing Ridley’s expression, continuing, “I may have lied about this being the first time I’ve ever done something like this.”

GM: “Hell, son, did you pe–” Ridley begins to say, but then realizes that even peaking, the detail and accuracy aren’t just preternatural, they’re photographic.

Kurt: “To be fair,” Kurt begins in a humble tone, “I was able to look twice.”

GM: “Shit,” Ridley says still amazed, “I think you should be teaching me.”

Kurt: Kurt laughs, enjoying the compliment. “It’s why I am not totally against acting as your rabbit,” he explains, smiling brightly from his seat.

GM: Ridley shakes his head again like he’s trying to dislodge his amazement, but just can’t. “I wish I had the hellavu brain you do, ace.” He walks off and starts collecting the underwear, still shaking his head and muttering amazement.

Kurt: Kurt gets up from his lawn chair, feeling a little sore still, but nonetheless hobbling after Ridley. He then attempts to helps his newly made mentor collect underwear. “I figure I better help,” Kurt says, “that way we get it done as fast as possible before Chippy gets back.”

GM: “No, no, Kurt, you sit down and rest that leg. She’s not due back for hours. I thought…” He shakes his head again.

Kurt: “Nonsense!” Kurt replies, “You’ve helped me out a lot; the least I can do is help you out!”

GM: Ridley waves him off. “Remember, Rule No. 3. Rest. The sooner your leg heals, the sooner the rabbit can run.”

Kurt: Kurt glares at Ridley a little in protest, but decides to not make too much of a thing of it, and instead decided to do as he’s told. He returns to his lawn chair and watches the clouds. He sees if he can make out any strange shapes or patterns. “Do you know where I can find a mirror out of curiosity, Ridley?” he finally asks, staring upward.

GM: Kurt’s eyes drink in the sky. Above him, autumn winds rip through the clouds. Their whiteness slashes the sky. But as Kurt stares longer, the tattered clouds seem to take on a repeating pattern. Three short splotches, three long stripes, and three short splotches again. Well versed in AV matters, Kurt recognizes the similarity to morse code and the meaning of that pattern:

SOS

SAVE OUR SOULS

Ridley, now far removed as he does clean-up, shouts back, “What?” Meanwhile, the skies continue to plead:

SAVE OUR SOULS
SAVE OUR SOULS
SAVE OUR SOULS

Kurt: Kurt frowns at the sky, then turns his vision down toward Ridley. “The sky is telling me things,” he says in a vague tone. “I don’t like it.” Kurt asks again, “Do you know where a mirror is, Ridley?”

GM: “A mirror? What, for that little bit of dirt on your chinny–chin–chin?” Not for the last time, Ridley mutters something about it taking longer to set up and take down the panties than for Kurt to memorize their cut, color, and location.

Kurt: “No. I need to see my reflection.” He adds, “It’s important, Ridley.”

GM: “Let me just get all this down,” he says, “And then I’ll find you something.”

Kurt: “Thanks, Ridley.” Kurt smiles at that answer, putting his focus back down at the pad and pencil still within his grasp–and then he starts scribbling another picture for Ridley. It’s a self-portrait. But there are little details that make it more than a simple self-portrait, hidden within the artistry. Within the reflection of Kurt’s right eye is Ridley; within the reflection of his left eye is Chippy; donned around his neck is a balloon-printed tie reminiscent of the ‘Wizard’. In the sheen of his hair, the image of a woman with a beehive hairdo can be made out in silhouette. The picture is framed in clouds and Morse code: SOS.

GM: As Ridley hefts his panty-filled duffel bag to Kurt, he calls out. “Okay, ace, let’s get you back to base and find a mirror for you.”

“What’s that?” he calls, still a little to far away to make out Kurt’s sketch.

Kurt: Kurt looks down at his sketch, then offers the drawing to Ridley. “It’s something I drew to pass the time while I waited,” Kurt says, “and seeing Chippy made us breakfast, I wanted to make something for everybody else in return. It’s a ‘thank you’ for saving my ass.”

GM: Ridley looks down at the picture, clearly impressed and even perhaps touched. He hardly registers the ‘thank you’ with a grunt, then says, “I hope my daughter marries someone like you, ace.”

Kurt: “I am way too young to be talking about marriage!” Kurt replies, grinning cheekily.

GM: “Keep it up though, and I might just let you date her,” he says, grinning. “You like Asian girls?”

Kurt: “I like any girl.”

GM: “I’m sure there’s a rule about that, but I forget the number.”

Kurt: “Maybe it’s an amendment to ‘feeding the beast?’”

GM: Ridley roars with laughter, smacking Kurt unintentionally right out of his chair.

“Aw shit, ace,” he says as he helps his recruit up.

Kurt: “Ouch! Don’t worry! I’m fine!”

GM: Together, they make their way across the field, Ridley still laughing. “So tell me about this ex-girlfriend of yours and how she so not as good as my daughter.”

Kurt: Kurt sighs, putting his hands behind the back of head. Nonetheless, a grin is plastered on his face. “Felicity. Don’t get me started…”

GM: Back at the camp, Ridley finds Kurt a mirror. But as the young man inspects the pocket-sized glass, he cannot find himself.

Kurt: Kurt stares at his no-reflection. He frowns as he continues to search and search without any answers. This isn’t good. Something’s wrong with me. I’m fucked, Fucked, FUCKED. Kurt looks to Ridley. “I can’t see anything.”

GM: Ridley’s brow furrows. “What are you talking about?”

Kurt: “I can’t see myself in the mirror. It’s like I’m Dracula! I have no reflection! What’s happening?” Kurt mutters, “Maybe it’s from fighting with my reflection in the mirror. Maybe he ran away.”

GM: Ridley’s creased brow only worsens. “It’s right there, Kurt. You don’t see it?”

Kurt: “No. I don’t.”

GM: “You’re not shitting me.”

Kurt: Kurt looks Ridley in the eyes. “I promise I am not lying.”

GM: Ridley puts a comforting but firm hand on Kurt’s shoulder, then takes away the mirror. “Okay, I believe you. You have a tube coming out of your skull, and Chippy near choked the devil out of you last night.”

Kurt: “I’m not going crazy, am I?” the question is asked pointedly. “What exactly happened back at the hospital when I fought my reflection?”

GM: Ridley rubs his hand over his buzz-cut scalp and shakes his head. “I really don’t know. I’m not too bright when it comes that stuff. I know how to cheat a psych eval and skirt getting labeled with shell-shocked, but I’m no shrink. You know, why don’t you take a break. I’ve been pushing you hard. Plus, I gotta fix the door I broke last night,” he motions with his thumb.

Kurt: Kurt looks sorrowful. “Do you think the Wizard would know?”

GM: “I guess,” he starts to say, before putting on a much firmer face. “Of course, absolutely. The Wiz will know. I’ll talk to the Wizard as soon as they get back.”

Kurt: “Thanks Ridley.” It’s genuine gratitude. “I need to know what’s going on with my head,” he says, “Because things aren’t making sense.”

GM: The tall man squats down on his haunches. “Ok, time to learn Ridley’s Rule No. 6. At the end of the day, your job is to come home alive. Got it? You do that, and deal with everything else tomorrow.”

Kurt: Kurt nods his head. “I will come home alive. I promise.”

GM: “Regardless of your mission, whether that’s diving into a foxhole and gutting Charlies with a bayonet, infiltrating an Arab’s palace and assassinating a radical emir, or going deep-cover in a hippie sex cult, your main job is to come home alive.”

Kurt: “Did any of those really happen?” Kurt asks with interest. “Like, going deep-cover in a hippie sex cult?”

GM: Ridley gives Kurt a wink. “That’s classified, but let’s just say I look good in a wig.”

Kurt: Kurt guffaws, smiling brightly. He feels a lot better now. “Do you mind if I have a nap, Ridley? Until the others get back, I mean.”

GM: “You’ve earned it, ace. I’ll fix the door later.”

GM: A few moments later, Kurt’s back inside the RV atop the same small, but adequate, mattress. Ridley explains the accommodations, “Can’t have you napping outside and risk being spotted by a black chopper. I’m going to do a perimeter sweep. You do me a favor and dream of your new girlfriend.” He shoots Kurt a thumbs up.

Kurt: Kurt gives Ridley a thumbs up in reply. After Ridley has left, Kurt props a pillow up and folds a blanket out neatly, then begins to rummage in search of something to read to help him get to sleep.

GM: Returning to yesterday’s bibliophilic water-hole, Kurt finds today’s edition of the town’s newspaper.

Kurt: Kurt flips through the newspaper, reading quite happily.

GM: Happ