Brook: Skin Deep
GM: Bad Medicine itself is very steep, forcing Brook to gear his truck’s manual transmission into progressively lower gears to make the grade. The road is one lane in each direction, with narrow shoulders, and no passing lanes. From one side to the other, Bad Medicine takes about an hour and a half to travel, most of the time at speeds limited by the road conditions to between 25 and 45 miles per hour. Several short and relatively straight stretches–which unfortunately usually end in a sharp curve at a poor angle–make the going treacherous.
Not only is the once logging road steep and prone to fog, rain, and winter black ice, but the road is poorly designed. Many of the numerous curves are set at a grade that encourages cars who enter them at too high a speed to leave the road rather than cling to it, and visibility is nonexistent in many areas. To make matters worse, the thick undergrowth and sharp drop-offs ensure that once a vehicle has left the road, it is almost impossible to see or reach. This evening, the beshadowed vistas are further obscured by snake-fog. Thankfully, traffic is light to nonexistent, with only the occasional vehicle passing by from the other direction.
As Brook approaches mile marker 16, he doesn’t see the roadkill as much as feel it. The truck repeatedly bumps and jolts as he runs over what he assumes are fog-shrouded rabbit, squirrel, or possum carcasses. Crows burst into flight and caw at their supper’s intrusion. Eventually though, just after the mile marker, Brook makes out a darker shape on the road: a timber-wolf. Buzzards and crows feast on the remains boldly, barely hoping back out of the way of the truck before returning to their meal.
Brook: Brook knows how bad this stretch of road is. He keeps the lights on the truck sending blues and reds out even after turning off the siren, sending out a signal in the snake-fog. Uktena. The Sioux say the thunderbirds killed them, all but the snakes you see today. But their ghosts are very much alive in Witiko Falls, the snake-fog a constant reminder. He gets there soon thanks to permission to use the sirens, but he slows to a crawl through the fog. Right up to the mile marker.
It’s like a massacre, smaller animals crunching under the car’s wheels until he gets to the larger carcass, parking in front of it and quickly using his radio to call it in as he grabs enough flares. “Mad Cub to Skinny Chet. I’m on scene. It’s, ah… it’s weird. Many smaller 10-45s en route to reported large one. Timber wolf. Halting traffic and approaching to ensure status.”
Hopping out, he’s quick to pop flares. One behind the truck, one beside it in the oncoming lane, and one in front of it, a few feet from the wolf. After he’s set up, he approaches the body. Just in case, he has out his sidearm, a burning flare in his off hand to ward off the birds. “Okay buddy, listen here if you’re alive. Either you get up and get into the woods, or I’ll end you. Okay? I wanna go home just like you do.”
It’s probably dead as a doornail, but he’s a cautious man. Little off, to be talking to the dead as well. Throwing the flare at the carcass, he quickly points his gun back up at it as he waits for a response. Sure it’d react to its fur being singed.
GM: There’s a short pause before the radio crackles. “10-4, Mad Cub. What you’re describing sounds pretty par for the course. Not saying it’s normal, just normal for Bad Medicine. Set those flares, and get done and out as quick as you can, Mad Cub. Radio as soon as you’re moving. Remember, stay behind the line.” A slight pause, then, “Also, watch out for Sta-au. Out.”
Meanwhile, the wolf does not respond. It is clearly dead, and its death was not pleasant. Already picked over by the now-circling carrion birds, the wolf carcass still has enough brutal clues for Brook to conclude that the wolf must have been traveling across the road when it was struck by a car, dragged momentarily, and then run over. The latter trauma caused the beast’s mid-section to burst open, allowing the buzzards and crows to gorge freely on the viscera. The stench and gore are overpowering—or would be for most individuals. But not the son of Mary Madcatcher. Instead, Brook stifles down the rising bile in his throat and picks out two other odd elements.
First, he notes the wolf had been recently shot by a rifle, a long graze across its left shoulder that hadn’t had time to heal or fester prior to its vehicular death. Second, there’s the ring. He notices it as the flare’s light glints off the ring’s large diamond. The jewelry is covered in picked-over gore, in likely what remains of the beast’s ruptured stomach. It has a gold band, with at least a two carat diamond. A half-dissolved, half-carrion picked finger-chunk rests inside the ring.
Brook: Brook rolls his eyes hearing the response from the man. He’s like a TV family show actor purposely being uncool in an episode where he tries to connect with his kids. “Roger, white bread. Wish me luck. Madcub out.” Whatever. As he comes up to the body and takes a better look at the very dead body, he puts the weapon away and pulls the knife out its sheath. It’s a fucking gore fest, but he swallows his fear and disgust, hoping to make his mother a bit proud.
That’s when he sees it. Using the blade of the knife, he pokes it towards himself to get a better look. Human meat, a finger on a ring. Fucking… ugh. But he keeps as much cool as he can, picking the entire thing up by the ring and rushing back with it to the truck. There’s bags in the road kit, he puts the finger in one and slips on a pair of gloves to get to work. He’ll have quite something to show Ma when he gets home. For now he grabs the shovel and huts to it, tossing smaller animals that are in okay condition into the back of the truck, and tossing everything else far over the side.
Poor possums, an entire family. Then if his guess is right, the wolf came smelling the blood. Wounded and without its pack, it went after an easy meal and… thump. But he doesn’t dwell, working quick as he can, thankful for the gloves. Especially when it comes time for the wolf. One hand on the back of the neck, one on the base of the tail. Using the spine, he doesn’t so much pick the body up as immediately toss it over the guard rail as far as he can. Football players have dead lifts. Brook has dead wolf lifts. But at least they don’t have to check and see what kind of mess the shovel will be needed for afterwards.
GM: Football players also don’t have to worry about their weights leaking blood, maggot-eggs, and gory pelt scraps all over their legs and hands. By the time the now-bloodied junior ranger grabs his shovel, the sun is all but set. An old, teal minivan pulls up behind him, half-slamming its brakes when its driver spots the flares and siren-lights. After the driver carefully backs up and away from the torturous edge, the passenger door opens, and a bean-pole, bespectacled man in sweater and jeans. The former almost perfectly matches the van in hue.
“Um, hello there!” he says, shielding his eyes from the flashing emergency lights. “Is this the way to Valhalla?”
Brook: Chitlins, either. But it’s part of the service. After he mutters a “sorry boy,” the road is almost clear but the leftovers. But before he can go and finish things up, he sees the civilian approach, glad for him having seen everything and stopped before disaster struck. Brook pulls off the disgusting gloves carefully as he approaches the man, turning them inside out and tossing them in the pile of pelt in the truck bed.
“Hopefully not the Valhalla I know, sir!” he says, keeping a few feet of distance. “I’m just cleaning up some roadkill, sir, if you just get back into your vehicle I can guide you past it with a flare.”
GM: The man unfolds a map he’s carrying. “Valhalla Provincial Park, right off of route 6. We’re visiting my cousin in Slocan for th–” He gags as he sees and spots the gore covering Brook. “Dear sweet Jiminy Cricket!” He holds the map up to his face. “That’s… that’s not a person, is it? I mean, from one.” He cranes his neck to see the smeared road, and gags again.
A heavyset woman pokes her head out of the minivan. She honks. “Is it the right road or not, Harold?!”
Brook: Brook sighs a bit of relief, for a moment the man sounded like a ghost. Once he spots the viscera, he looks like one. “See this fog, sir? It’s called snake fog. Animals come through here like they always have and get hit. No human casualties this time.”
But hearing that woman honk spooks the young ranger. Pulling out another flare, he strikes it open and approaches the man, a clean hand on his shoulder. “Back in the van, sir. I can give you directions through the window. You’re safer in your vehicle.”
Then he comes up to the woman, making sure to get a good look at her as he holds the flare up above the van to signal oncoming cars. “Ma’am, I’ll have to ask you refrain from loud noises up here. This is a dangerous pass you’ve chosen, better to go slow and respectful. Now, what you want to do is…” Brook recites the directions clearly, making hand motions to accent it. Stressing all the caution he can moving through the mist here.
GM: ‘Harold’ is all too eager to be back in the safe, non-gore-smeared van. As Brook approaches the driver’s side of the minivan, he spots a gaggle of children in its two rows, half-buried by blankets, toys, and travel gear. One of the children, a girl Brook thinks, calls up to the front, “Mom, did you get a ticket again?”
The woman fixes the child with a chilling glare, then turns back to the young ranger as he explains the directions. “Did you get all that, Harold?” she asks.
The man starts following the map with his finger. “Yep,” he replies. “I see the route.”
“That’s what you said the last time,” the woman says icily.
“Well, I just wasn’t sure with this road, dear,” the clearly hen-pecked man replies differentially.
Brook: Brook steps in a little bit between the two, looking over his shoulder into the fog for a moment as he speaks. “You two might wanna refrain from your… relationship dynamic until you get clear of here as well,” he says, shooting the woman a look.
“You’re passing through cursed land. Twelve people a month die on this pass. Bodies never found. They say a ghost comes out the fog in front of your car. If it’s the ghost I think it is, marriage issues might draw it to you. So either shush up, or turn around and take another route. For your kids. Pick quick, too. I have carcass to shovel up.”
GM: The two adults grow silent. Even the rambunctious children in the back settle down upon hearing about the ‘cursed land’ and its murderous ghost. Harold rolls up his window. His wife starts to thank and even apologize to the junior park ranger, when one of the smallest children says, “Mommy, I think I saw the ghost. It was big and dark and had two shiny eyes.” The child points to a stretch of trees just ahead and to the right of the carcass remains.
Her mother shushes her child, while her father says, “Okay now Sally, ghosts aren’t real. It was probably just a deer—their eyes reflect when light is shined on them. Okay?” He then looks up at Brook for some kind of reassurance or support.
Brook: Brook smiles a little bit when they get the hint. Even he doesn’t know if it’s true or not, but a cautious driver is more than most can hope for. But then the kid opens his mouth, bristles work up his back, and a small frown forms on his face, looking back to where the kid points. He tries not to make a show of drawing his revolver, keeping it at his side.
“Sally, right? You have good eyes, kiddo. Keep them sharp, okay? And don’t be afraid. Be nice to the land, and the land can be nice back. Respect is huge.” It isn’t a confirmation or denial, but he looks to the parents.
“And you two. Rule one of roadkill. No matter what jumps into the road, keep going STRAIGHT. Don’t turn that wheel, brace it. This mess isn’t uncommon, and it attracts more mess. Now let’s get you both through here, okay? Follow my flare and turn back into your lane when I stop following beside you, okay?”
GM: The family and its teal minivan follow the junior park ranger’s instructions. They eventually disappear into the fog—hopefully to safety.
Brook: Brook feels sorry for them, but knows he warned them. And armed them as best he could. Hopefully they won’t come back. The moment they get out of sight, the young man holsters the revolver and unslings his rifle, nose scrunching in a snarl as he chambers a round and goes to take a quick look. “Okay, more talking to myself… fuck… calm down, check it out, get the last of this poor guy out the road and go home to Ma. Whatever it is, it’s probably just hungry…”
GM: As Brook pushes himself to inspect the deep fog-shrouded pines where the child pointed, he senses something move in his peripheral vision. Neck and rifle barrel snapping around, he sees darkness staring back at him. It’s only for a moment, and maybe nothing more than the trick of the eye with the blur of the siren lights and bright flares, but Brook could swear he sees two eye-like spots staring back at him, shining with an oily glow in the midst of a lean black shape—a shape that seems to pour down the ravine and out of sight.
Brook: Snapping to the side, what the boy sees nearly makes him pull the trigger immediately, locking unblinking eyes with the creature until it slowly… slinks isn’t the right word. Everything goes rigid for a moment as he just stands there. Was that… was it a fucking hide-behind? Brook quickly shifts the safety back onto his rifle and strides back to the truck, grabs the shovel and gets back to work. Just a little more. Just the guts left.
As if trying to ward the creature away, he tosses the guts over the side at where he’d seen it, doing his job and—fuck forbid anything stop him—collects the flares and pulls a careful U turn back the way he came, heart pounding a mile a minute.
GM: On Brook’s last shovel-full of road-kill slop, he flings the shovel’s content wide and over the edge. His eyes can’t help but look down, can’t help but search for the oily glow of eyes staring up at him. He does not see them, though. But he also doesn’t see the wolf carcass either. It’s gone. Sweat trickles down his neck—and not just from exertion.
Brook: Brook shudders. That’s enough for today. Finally he’s in his truck, windows rolled up, lights going, radio off. He waits until he’s out of the fog and out of the pass to turn his lights back off. This… needs some time to stew. Once he’s in town, he stops at the Swiner, just parked there as he picks up his radio receiver. “Mad Cub to Skinny Chet. Is Mama Bear there at the station?”
GM: The radio crackles. “Chet speaking, Mad Cub. Mama Bear is out on the range. What’s your 20?”
Brook: Brook deflates a little, feeling like a scared little kid lost in a park for a moment before he takes a breath. You’re the Fence of the Falls, Brook. Steel. Breathe. “Parked in the lot of the Swiner. Job’s done, but there’s been complications. Advice on the address of Undersherrif Bauman?”
GM: “Mad Cub, you were to report as soon as you got done. Geez, kid. Your mom’s been having a heart attack. Or well, I’ve been having a heart attack for her. Why are you at the Swiner? And what’s the undersheriff got to do with it? Over.”
Brook: “Yeah, sorry Chet. I, uh… some stuff happened, I had to white knuckle it out of the pass and breathe a second. Half-ingested human remains were among the roadkill, the evidence needs to be turned in ASAP, and I wanted to have a talk with the undersherrif anyway. I’ll explain the rest once I get back. Advice on address, over.”
GM: There’s a delay in Chet’s response. “Mad Cub, I’m hankering to give you a 10-19, but I’m going to 10-5 to Mama Bear and the Den. Standby.”
Brook: Brook sighs nods to himself, getting out a sketchpad from the glovebox as he waits. That thing was dark. Maybe too dark to identify. But he needs to get down exactly what he saw as soon as possible. Words can only do so much, he sketches out the scene, starting from the Creature. With as much detail as he can recall. He can show it to his mother later.
GM: Brook’s artistry does not just depict the thing—it captures it. It’s almost as if his subconscious mind takes over, recalling things and details that his conscious psyche would not let him perceive. But now, the thing stares back at him, and he stares back at it. Clearly now. Its grotesque umbral shape echoes something of a coyote, but its size is closer to a grizzly, and yet there is still something vaguely feminine to its shape, something that turns Brook’s loins to water. It has large jaws and too, too many claws. The latter look most suited to digging, but they’re still likely capable of disemboweling a full-grown man. It’s black. Beyond black. It’s covered by a shroud, a pelt of matte darkness. And then there’s the eyes. Brook has to spit on the paper to get them to properly gleam with the right and oh-so wrong oily night-shine. Those eyes stare back at him. Watching. Waiting.
The radio eventually saves Brook from sinking into those oily abysses. Chet gives him the undersheriff’s current location. “149 Lynchwood Street. Sounds like Mrs. Gunderson got another dog. Looks like we’ve got a 10-11. Hope you’re up on your rabies shot. Over.”
Brook: Brook looks it over again and again before staring into the thing’s eyes. Its body looks feminine, but the eyes… they’re strange. It hasn’t really sunk in yet that he was mere feet from this monster. He had no idea what it was. No local little rumor fills the blanks in his head.
The radio coming up jolts him just a little, and he carefully blows it out to keep the sketch right, putting it back away and picking up the receiver. “10-4. On route. See you both soon. Mad Cub out.” Brook puts it into gear and drives out towards Gunderson’s. Half backup, half bearer of bad news.
The ride is short and the stay is shorter. By the time Brook arrives at 149 Lynchwood, Undersheriff Bauman is carrying out a shot Yorkshire Terrier, and Mrs. Gunderson is weeping on her front doorstep, her left leg freshly bandaged. Witiko Falls’ chief lawman does not look pleased. “No more, Mrs. Gunderson. No more. If you do it again, I’ll have to charge you. Nobody
wants that.” The old woman replies with an incoherent sob as the undersheriff takes the dead toy dog to his truck.
“What can I do for you, Ranger Barnes?” asks Hazel’s father as he spots the teen exiting the truck.
Dogs. Brook doesn’t mind dogs, they always look so nice on TV and in movies. But his experience with them culminates in a scrapbook of their turning on residents. Hopping out of the truck, the very well-armed young man extends a hand to shake as he approaches. “Sorry to take up your time, Undersheriff Bauman. I’ll be quick and blunt. I found something you might want to see.” Despite her crying, he doesn’t want Mrs. Gunderson to overhear, whispering the next part. “Human remains from Bad Medicine. In a wolf’s stomach. There’s a wedding band attached.”
The cowboy-hatted lawman arches a brow. “Bad Medicine, you’re talking about Rockwell’s Fall, right, the old logging road? I appreciate the heads up, but frankly I don’t understand the house call. Kaniksu’s federal land. Your jurisdiction, not mine.” He sets down the shot canine in his truck bed, first wrapping it in a canvas. “So how can I help?”
Brook nods at the undersheriff’s connection between Rockwell’s Fall and Bad Medicine, watching him wrap the animal up. “I was hoping you could let me have a quick look at your new missing person cases. Remains found in Rockwell’s Fall are really rare, Undersheriff.” At least the young man knows why, now. However little a comfort it is.
“The finger isn’t fully gone. Recent. Wolf was shot at already, not with its pack, scavenging instead of hunting. Highly possible it killed someone in either our jurisdictions. Plus, I thought I could take a second to congratulate you. I saw Hazel today. First time since I was ten!”
Harvey stops, his eyes searching Brook’s face as the teen flits between topics. “Have your mom contact me, and we’ll pass along our current 10-57 cases.” He offers the ranger cadet a firm handshake.
Brook returns the handshake just as firmly, finding it a little strange that he doesn’t want to broach the daughter subject. Or to hand over the cases to him. Though when he stops to think on it, it’s true he’s just a junior ranger. It’s easy to forget when he’s kit out like this, covered in gore. “Yes, sir. Sorry for the house call, guess I just got ahead of myself. Bad Medicine gets the heart going. Anything I can help with before I head home?”
“Unless you want to adopt a dead terrier, not tonight.”
Brook nods a bit awkwardly, clearing his throat. “If you change your mind, I’m at the station all night. Sorry for the… harried meeting, bit shaken. Have a good night, Undersheriff.” With that, he turns and waves, heading back to his truck to start home. Hoping there’s coffee in the pot still.
The undersheriff waves farewell in return, wishing Brook a safe night.
The ride back to Red Aspen is uneventful, but far from peaceful. Every tree harbors a shadow, and more than once he catches the night-shine of animal eyes in his high beams. Foghorns and loon-calls are eventually replaced by coyote howls and elk bulls pinning for rut. The once full moon begins to wither, and the air is as dry and cold as a bone. The home-sweet home sound of gravel pinging under his truck’s carriage announces his arrival. Looking around, Brook notices his mother’s truck is gone. Only Chet’s jeep remains parked at the station, his presence otherwise evident by the watch-tower’s light. Further above, the radio spires blink with aviation lights, pulsing into crimson splotches before fading into blackness.
People wonder and ask why he has trouble sleeping at night. It’s like a nightmare, like the moment the sun goes down everything wakes up. Like they think the moon is the only thing that gives them an advantage over fire and steel. Coming up to the station, he gets on the horn again up to the radio tower.
“Mad Cub to Skinny Chet. Your relief is here, safe from Mormon ghosts. Just let me put these bodies in the ‘meat box’ and I’ll take my perch. Over.”
“10-4. Out,” comes Chet’s less than glib reply. A few minutes later, after the aforementioned task is completed, Brook is in his ‘perch’. The station’s top floor is surrounded by large, storm-resilient windows, and otherwise filled with radio equipment, large road and topographical maps, and little unused floor-space. Chet sits in the cockpit, chatting away with likely another of his ham radio girlfriends.
Spotting Brook, he signs off, “10-3, Goddesszilla, I got to skeedle loo doo. Catch you on the choice waves. Skinny Out.” The mustachioed, bespectacled man then spins the chair around. “Hidley ho, neighbor!” the park ranger says in his best (but not very good) impression of Ned Flanders. He stretches his long limbs and yawns.
Carrying all his things up into the station, he drops all but the plastic baggy on the ground next to the door, walking in looking like a soldier back from war. “Not right now, Chet. I’ve got paperwork to fill out and a lot of… bullshit to sort out.”
Carefully placing the finger down on the table in front of the man, he sighs. “I keep forgetting I’m not a real ranger. Undersheriff wants Mom to put the request in for missing person’s files.”
With the finger down, Brook unslings the rifle, pops the safety off, and pulls open the chamber, sending metal clattering onto the ground. Safety back on, and you have an inert firearm ready to be stored. “Where’s my mother?”
Finger-chunk. Or more properly, a massive, multi-thousand dollar ring with a wedge of gory, foul smelling meat stuck in the middle. Chet doesn’t lose his cookies like Harold did, but he certainly rears back. “Geez, Brook! What the heck is going on, kid. I’ve twice now covered for you. Mary might already have my hide.” He stares at the meat-chunk wrapped in gold. “Is that… real?” he asks agog—though it is not clear whether he’s referring to the human flesh or the two carat diamond.
Brook loves gems and crystals, though more a fan of raw ones. There’s an amethyst geode in his room, however small, a birthday present way back when. This is different, he’s more interested in the band. There might be a telltale inscription in the middle. Something he’ll have to figure out.
“Yeah, it’s real. Sorry, Chet, you’re right. Just—ugh. When I got there, something was watching me. It was feet from me, and I didn’t notice. If it jumped me…..” Slumping against the wall, the boy pulls off the hat and tosses it onto the floor beside him. “And Mom’s already pissed at me and all that other personal garbage today.”
Chet gives the bloody ring one last glance as he rubs his mustache. He then walks over to Brook, squatting as he asks, “Was it Sta-au? You didn’t cross the line, did you?”
Brook’s eyes shoot death at the man, swallowing down the compulsion to snarl at him. “Chet, stop using that word. I didn’t cross the line–the line came to me! It wasn’t some white woman’s ghost. It was an animal. A BIG
animal, that was eating the carrion I tossed over the guard rail. I was feet from it. We made eye contact, Chet. How often do you go into the field and stare an animal bigger than you in the eye?”
Chet is silent for a while as something swims beneath his spectacles. “I’ve paid my dues, kid. Everyone who wears the ranger uniform has.”
Brook is paying his dues in a different way than most. He was born into this life. Summers filled with lessons based around gore and death. And fear. But hearing that statement come from Chet, there’s a bit of a pang of guilt in his chest. “I know you have, Chet. My mother wouldn’t let you work here if she didn’t trust you.” There’s an awkward pause, but only for a few moments before that fire of indignation reminds him why he was talking.
“I was raised doing this same job though, Chet. There was no line. It was an animal with eyes I looked right into, we both know that doesn’t happen often without an attack. It went down the ravine again after, I finished my job, and I drove away before it came back for me. I wasn’t being irresponsible, I was being safe. It was big enough that even in my truck I wasn’t out of reach.”
Chet stands up and faces the dark wilderness outside the window. “Geez dill-whippers, no one accused you of being irresponsible.” Brook then hears Chet mumble under his breath. “Shouldn’t have been out there alone.” He turns around, then, “But there is
a line. Ask anybody. If you didn’t see it or feel it, you weren’t close—which is okie dokie.”
“Sta-au may wander onto our side, but we don’t wander onto theirs. Your mother taught me that. We’ve always followed that rule, and we’ve never lost a single ranger to Bad Medicine. Everybody wants to keep it that way. As for your mom, you know her better than any of us. But what you may not know is that these fires are riding her hard—and now there’s that U.S. Marshall trying to call the shots. You know she doesn’t deal well with outsiders mucking up her yard, particularly ones too big for their britches.”
He folds his hands behind his head. “Anywho, its late, I’m hungry, and I missed a date with TornadoToto from Wichita. But I’m not going to leave you high and dry. What can I do to help before I head out?”
Brook sighs a little bit, wondering if he just isn’t’t aware. He’s not a ‘kid’, and squatting in front of him is demeaning. “Chet, you’re not Blackfoot. Can you just call them ghosts?” he asks, rubbing the back of his head. “I know there’s a line. But I didn’t come close to it. I’d feel it.” But then he hears about the fires. He’s chipping in more and more thanks to them, but the news of this marshal is news to him. Whoever he is, he sounds like a dick.
“Just need to find paperwork, I’ll be recording my findings on that ring. But I don’t think she followed me from Bad Medicine, so I’ll be fine. You go home and get some rest.” He’s eager to shower and start his night, the show is due to start soon. Having his mother’s help with his issues is going to have to wait, too.
Chet half-shrugs, half-sighs as he gathers his coat and keys. “Roger that. See you on the next side of sunrise.” He then leaves the youth to man the station.
Brook sighs once he’s alone. Triple checks the front door’s locking and immediately goes to the bathroom. Pants in the ‘bad’ basket and the rest of his uniform in the good. Shit, shower, shave, and the young man feels like a new man, combing out his hair as he walks out the bathroom in the buff with nothing but his sidearm. Once he’s changed and dry, he’s up in his tower. Door closed and locked, lights dimmed to increase outside visibility.
Playlist is cued up in the system, phone is right by the seat, ham radio checked. But this is his private minute. Standing, Brook walks to the window and looks out over the town, appreciating it for a moment. Everyone is down there, their own mysteries and their own lives, sleeping soundly or delving into things they shouldn’t. It’s the subject of a lot of paintings, this view.
Finally though, he sits down in his seat and adjusts the mic, leaning into it before flipping the switch. “Good evening folks, this is Brook Barnes up here in Madcatcher station, starting the night off with you all. And damned if it hasn’t been quite the night. Before I start yet another wonderful starry night together, I’ve just got a quick little PSA
I thought up on the way home. Rockwell’s Fall. Also known as Bad Medicine, the pass is the shortest route through the mountain–if you’re a tourist, dumb, suicidal, or all three. 12 people a year don’t make it through that pass. I just wanted to remind you of all the alternate routes, and there are plenty of them.” He then rattles off the various longer, if safer routes, then continues, “I’m going to start us out tonight with some Oasis, while I get set up here. Why? Cause ‘I don’t believe that anybody feels the way I do about you now.’ Here’s Wonderwall.”
With the press of a button, the mic goes dead, and the song travels up the towers and out through the entire town. Brook meanwhile sets up. Coffee, gloves, a few medical tools, a camera, and the relevant paperwork. Sitting back down, he pulls the gloves on and the finger out. Using the tweezers, he carefully tries to dislodge the ring from the finger.
After a few teasing pokes, it becomes very clear that he needs to leave this thing alone. Wrapping it back up, he grabs a shopping bag and double wraps it, putting it in the fridge for safe keeping and coming back, just filling out the paperwork. Maybe he can get some help from the outside. Solve this without bugging his mother. For now, he resolves to just take the night to digest the day, do paperwork, and put his new programming into play.
The paperwork proves difficult for the ranger cadet, but not insurmountable. After all, there is no “Found Finger Inside Dead Wolf’s Belly Form”, not even at Red Aspen. Yet, as Brook told Chet, he was raised in this station, and he, like many of his non-white ancestors, discovered long ago that much can be learned by watching one’s elders. It takes him a while (and that’s even when he wisely decides not to officially document his encounter with the thing
), but Brook wraps up and files away his paperwork with the satisfaction of one who is sure they have done a good job.
As usual, night breeds confidence in the young man. That confidence only grows as he further transitions into his role as Witiko Falls’ sole night-time radio jockey.
Brook won’t tell anyone about that thing yet. His mother’s plate is full without a hunt through a gulch for some starved black bear with fucked up eyes. Settling into his seat, he eats and sips coffee for the first few songs, his rifle ready and willing up against the console just a few feet away. Just because he’s out of the pass doesn’t mean the pass can’t come at him.
For now he gets into his role fully, mixing around the playlist to his liking between running pre-recorded night ads for local businesses. Beyond that, he reads news, gives updates on the fires, talks about the recent sports goings on at Witiko Falls. After that short hour of programming, he flips through his sketchpad and starts on the next segment he’d had planned.
“Well folks, there’s plenty of stuff to talk about on my end tonight. But after a small while of being up here on my perch, and a crazy few days, I’ve gotten to thinking my voice alone might not be enough to warm some of your midnight Witiko chills. I got my setup here to work with the phone a few nights ago. If you have something you wanna get off your chest, a subject you wanna broach with my listeners, or just wanna say ‘hi’, my number’s 293-1992. We’ll be open for calls for an hour or so. Let’s call it a test run. Hear from you all soon, and… let’s play it by ear. Until we get a new caller, I’ll just go ahead and keep going with the daily news.”
Brook does just that, watching and peeking up at the windows every so often. It’s an ingrained habit to scan his domain.
It only takes a few minutes, but lights start flickering on his console as the first calls trickle in. “Hello? Hello?” says the first caller, terrible feedback warbling before they back away from their radio. “Am I on the air?”
Brook smiles a bit and interrupts himself, letting the listeners know they have a first call before answering it, recoiling for a moment before they back away and it’s fixed. “You certainly are, caller. This is Brook Barnes up in his stone tower. What can I do you for tonight?”
“Well,” the female speaker says, “Let me first just say that I’m a big fan of your show. I listen to it every night when I vacuum my drapes and iron my husband’s clothes.”
Brook grins. Oh the flattery. “That’s great! Thanks so much for supporting… well, me not feeling so alone up here! I appreciate it. Did you have anything to share with the rest of our listeners?”
“Oh, yes, I did! Or do. I wanted to ask about the gas leak at the hospital. I’m assuming you heard about the public service announcements from the mayor’s office and hospital board, but I was wondering if you or any other listeners have any other details. For example, do we know what kind of gas it was? Are there any other symptoms beside hallucinations? How long might these symptoms last? Has this happened before—and how likely is it that it will happen again?”
Brook frowns hearing about it, a bit of a pit dropping into his stomach. He has no idea about anything. “Well, caller, I’m personally not sure. If it’s a gas leak, I can only guess it’d be natural gas. The kind they make smells like rotten eggs? But again! Not sure. One thing I can assure you of, is that now that something has gone wrong, the hospital and the town will address it, so there’s no repeats. We all learn from our mistakes. If you stay tuned though, I’m sure there’s someone out there tonight who knows their stuff. Is there anything else you wanna say before we take our next caller?”
“Well, um, I heard it was an odorless gas. Or maybe I just thought it was. But I’m relieved to hear you think everything is fine. Thanks for a great show. Any chance we’ll hear some Barry Manilow or Rod Stewart?”
“Unfortunately, a Ranger doesn’t have much dealing with gases, ma’am. I’m sure we’ll know more soon. But I’m glad you like the show! Just for you, soon as this segment of calls is over, I’ll que up some of those golden pipes just for you. Have a great night, miss.”
The next caller, also a woman, is a familiar one, Lola Three-Kills from the Res. “Yes, Brook, it’s Lola. I wanted to see if you can pass on a message to your listeners. We’re organizing a bonfire vigil for the Crowshoe family at 11 pm. Everyone who wishes to attend and show their support can meet us at Lame Bull’s stadium. I don’t know if you can rebroadcast that message a few times, but we want to get the word out to as many people as possible. Once again, 11 pm at the school stadium. Thank you.”
Taking the next caller, nothing could have prepared Brook for this news. They dismissed poor Cindy Crowshoe’s breakdown as fake. “Whoah, Lola, wait. Cindy was at school just today. Who passed away, what happened?”
A long silence drags out on the line. “Oh, Brook… I thought you knew. I’m so sorry. Nadie died this morning. There was… an accident.” Lola’s voice starts to choke up. “I have to go. If you can, let people know about the vigil. 11 pm at the stadium. And please keep the Crowshoe family in your thoughts and prayers.” Lola hangs up.
Brook is silent for a moment after the call ends, clearing his throat and letting out a deep sigh. “Nadie Crowshoe was a good woman. She will definitely be missed. I wish I could leave the station, else I’d be down there with my classmate, trying to cheer her on. Folks, if you got the time, please do make your way down to the vigil to say a kind word or two. 11pm at Lame Bull’s stadium. We’re nothing if not a community arm in arm right? But let’s get on to our next caller, hear more of what that community has to say tonight.”
The next two callers stumble through impromptu condolences to the Crowshoe family. Clearly, that was not their original reason for calling—but it’s hard to gripe about the town trash-truck coming early or late right after hearing that a community member died.
Brook’s fifth caller is either too removed or too insensitive to care. It’s a younger voice, likely younger than Brook’s, and one that’s talking rapidly with a mixture of anger and nerves. “Yes, radio-guy? So I heard you talking about Rockwell’s Fall, and so I wanted to call in and speak my mind about how I think it’s wrong that the government is letting people hunt grizzly bear in the woods around the pass. They say it’s to control the population, but that’s… that’s not right.”
“Humans have a population issue—should we manage it the same way we manage other species? Yes, bears are predators, and some get aggressive. But then, like, should human males showing aggression be put down? Like as a service to our species?. Like, all male humans who are potentially dangerous to other males or females should be put down. And to those hunters that say the licenses bring money, well, I say there is a way to start having an economy that places value on life rather than death—and no, this isn’t unrealistic or a fantasy. Those hunters could have just donated the money—if you just donate money to land for animals instead of paying to murder them, that would actually make you a hero. And if we stopped mining, paving, destroying wildlife habitat, we wouldn’t have a wildlife problem!”
“And to the hunters who get ‘good feelings’ from killing—you are what’s known as a psychopathic killer. Thinking about them killing bears makes me angry, and I try to feel nothing but compassion. It’s really hard to feel compassion for people who delight so much in ending the life of an innocent creature, thinking that there’s a ‘sport’ going on and are subject to a legitimized murder. Shame on everyone involved. We don’t deserve to live among animals!”
Book has heard this kind of person scream in his face before, he knows how to handle them. He doesn’t waste much time on it, he goes over the points she’s terribly wrong in, empathizing with her over the grizzlies, and giving her the rundown on the new permits going out to rich assholes. Though what he really tries to drive home is that none of this will probably happen in Witiko Falls. Not only is it hard to get here but the wildlife is different and more aggressive than usual.
“Look, I know you think you’re doing right. But you need to do your reading, and you need to not be bigoted. If you’re insulting and aggressive going into an argument people will just disagree with you on reflex to how you act towards them. You don’t make it super appealing to people who might be on your side either. Any other questions before we go to the next caller?”
Once again, Brook leaves a caller scrambling for words. The young girl stammers a bit before blurting out, “W…y-es, yes, I do have another question! Do you know that you’re a stuck up murder-loving hypocritical pig!? You think you know it all just because you have a radio mic, but you’re just a kid! They’re hunting now—right up in the pass! I’m never listening to your show again—and, and, I hope a grizzly bear eats you so the human gene pool won’t be so stupid!!”
And once again, Brook has another caller hang up. Her call, however, prompts a deluge of others. Nearly all are pro-hunting, but a few are against the licenses. Even fewer callers, regardless of their positions, are markedly articulate or measured. Despite all the activity and obvious interest in the ‘program’, Brook might feel relief when the broadcast is interrupted by a CB crackle: “Break, break.” It’s his mother.
Brook rolls his eyes a little and just laughs it off after she hangs up, though another caller comes up about hunting, then another, and another. He’s about to call for a break when the radio crackles to life. The current call is ended and he flicks it onto the playlist. Barry Manilow’s ‘Mandy’ first up. He grabs the receiver and his pad of paper, ready to write down what’s happening. “Red Aspen station receiving you, over.”
“Red Aspen, I need you to 10-5 a 10-35. 10-63. Over.” Back at the station, with the codes on hand, the message is clear: Mary needs him to relay a major alert, and is waiting for him to signal he’s ready.
“Ready. Go ahead, Mama Bear. Over.” Brook braces himself, pen on blank paper waiting for her relay.
Mary’s flat voice comes over the radio: “This is an emergency alert. A man has escaped from the State Psychiatric Hospital. He is considered armed and extremely dangerous. The man is Caucasian, appears to be in his late sixties to seventies, white-haired, and green-eyed, and is missing his left hand. If you see a man matching this description, do not engage
. Call 911 immediately. 10-5, Red Aspen. Out.”
“10-69, Mama Bear. 10-5 to town authorities; 11 PM memorial gathering at Lame Bull Stadium. Lots of people out after dark with a 10-96 at large. Out.” Shit. This is bad. Brook interrupts the song halfway through and his tone is deathly serious.
“We’re cutting this segment short for an emergency report.” Brook reads off the information word for word, and repeats it several times so everyone is clear. “Please stay in-doors if possible, everyone. Locks your doors for tonight. We don’t know where this man is, but local authorities are working to apprehend him. I’ll give out more information as it receive it.” With that, he toggles the music back on to the next song. Another Manilow song, just so he doesn’t rip that first lady out of her song.
“Wilco, Red Aspen. Mama Bear is 10-6. Out,” comes Mary’s delayed reply. As Manilow finishes his serenade, eleven o’clock rolls around.
Brook sighs a little and leaves the receiver alone after that, hanging it back up on its little hook. 11 PM. He picks up his microphone for an announcement. “11 PM rolls around. Because of our recent alert, I can’t condone making the trip to the memorial service. But please join me in a moment of silence for the Crowshoe Family, and show your support when you can. For one minute, our programming will cease. Then we’ll return for some news, and the night goes on.” He does just that, cutting the mic and stopping the playlist. Silence. Standing up, he takes the moment to look around the windows of the tower, checking his surroundings for anything wrong or dangerous.
Is there a madman in his woods? He cannot tell. But from his vantage, he spots a distant section of the forest aflame, a red-white blur in a sea of blue-green black. Smoke rises to smear gray across a small stretch of stars like gauze over gunshots.
It’s a pretty sight, however dangerous it is, and however much it’s taking away his mother’s attention. It’s a nice blend of colors, maybe something to paint another night. After his minute of radio silence, he sits back in his chair and gets back on his microphone. Another go of the emergency warning and description, and a tiny bit of other local news, and he flips the playlist back on, just sitting sipping coffee. It’s going to be quite a night, he can tell. Even if it’s quiet, his head is loud.
The fire plays out like Brook’s private light show—though he knows from the radio chatter and plane drops that it is far from private. Eventually, the distant firestorm is cleaved in two and left to slowly die out. From his miles-away vantage, Brook cannot help but perceive the smoldering forest fires as two glowing eyes staring at him. Watching. Waiting. Hungry.
Brook has just as rough a night as he thinks it’ll be. Every shadow that moves outside his tower is now that creature from the pass. But he keeps the vigil, rifle in his lap, doing his programming until the greens and blacks brighten into oranges and yellows. Like every morning before it, it deflates the boy, watching the road for his relief so he can sleep a few hours before school. Despite that, he hopes it’s his mother. There’s a lot to tell her.
Brook sees her truck’s headlights cut through pre-dawn darkness, another pair of lights staring out from the now grey-black forest. She radios her return to Red Aspen, then trudges up the flight of stairs. Despite the exhaustion that must drag her every sinew, her first stop is the top floor where her adoptive son mans the radio. Covered in soot and reeking of wood-smoke, gasoline, and fire-retardant chemicals, Mary takes off her hat, the desiccated grizzly balls rattling on the table. She strips off her gloves and lays a strong hand on Brook’s face. As before, there is a slight smile—and a slight frown. She breathes in deeply, then sits beside Brook. Her dark eyes regard him, blinking slowly, as she waits.
Brook has her coffee ready for her when she walks in, he never knows how to deal with ‘that’ face, or when she’s like this. Everything just sounds like an excuse in his head. Tired eyes regarding her, looking a little confused and more than a little worried, he starts where he thinks he should.
Standing again, he brings her the now-chilled finger, the completed paperwork, and his sketchbook, sitting down. “I found this in the stomach of the carcass on Bad Medicine. Undersheriff Bauman said he’ll send me the missing persons reports with your okay.”
But when he reaches for his sketchbook, he looks up almost scared at what his mother might think of it. “Before we talk about school… I also saw something else at Bad Medicine. Ma, I… have you ever seen something in the forest, you weren’t sure you were supposed to?”
Mary nods at the offered coffee and silently reads over the paperwork. She then looks over the finger chunk and its ring, then nods slowly in regards to contacting the county sheriff’s department. At the mention of seeing things
on Bad Medicine, Mary takes a long sip of the coffee, sets the mug down, and places her hands on her soot-stained knees. She looks her son in his eyes, as if reading his thoughts and fears, then motions to the sketchpad.
This isn’t unusual. She’s tired, she worked for a day and a night, and she deserves a break, not having to speak. But all her reactions are… favorable so far. Much as they can be the way they’re ‘talking’. When she motions to his sketchpad, he slowly opens it to the right page. Those eyes staring back up at him, before he passes it over to his mother to see.
“It was watching me. Probably the whole time. There was a vehicle, I gave them directions. The child pointed out a shape with glowing eyes. I got them past the roadkill and went to look. It was feet from me, Ma. It was darker than dark, but it moved and I caught it. I looked it right in its eyes. Barrel pointed into its face. It backed off down the ravine and took the wolf’s body.”
Mary looks at the picture for a long time. She eventually breaks her own silence. “Your grandfathers would say you could steal souls with that hand.” Handing over the sketchpad, she gestures to the picture and adds kindly, “Next time you return to Bad Medicine, give it back.”
Brook takes it back and stares at it for a moment, looking slowly back at his mother. “Does that mean you’ve seen her before? Whatever this is…?”
Brook shudders, looking back down at those eyes. “And you’re okay. I’m okay. What is she?”
Mary reaches over and turns a page. “You know better than to stare at a predator’s eyes.” And then, to answer Brook’s question, Mary says, “A part of nature, my son, but not life.”
Brook feels a small sense of release when his mother turns the page, slowly closing the book back up and keeping it on his lap. Predator, part of nature, but not of life. Is she saying this creature is death? Then why are the two of them alive? “It kept me alive. I was prey, eyelocked, but I’m still living. I want to learn all I can of it, so I can keep everyone safe. Does it have a name?”
“Neither wind nor fire is its name,” the thick-bodied woman says as she looks out a window. “Some call them wendigo or stau-au. Not I. Other tribes call them nalusa chito
or impa shilup
, the soul-eater or shadows of that great black being. Others name them nalusa falaya
, the long black beings for how they slither and not walk. Others say they are the shilombish
, the outside shadows, which seek out the shilup
or inside shadow of every beast, the ghost that shilombish
frees by devouring the shilup’s
body of clay. While the inside shadow returns to the Great Spirit, the outside shadow remains in the Velvet. But sometimes, they wander. Restless. They linger, moaning to frighten surviving friends, to make them forsake the spot, and seek another place to live. By night, they howl like the coyote or screech like the owl. Their cry speaks of bad things. When a true coyote howls, or a true owl screeches, another coyote or owl replies. But when the shilombish
mimics the sound of either beast, silence is the only answer.”
She then turns back to her son, adding, “But I don’t need the name of wind to know that it blows, nor the name of fire to know that it burns.” Mary then drags her chair closer and curls her muscled hand on the nape of Brook’s neck. “Now we speak of life.” It is not a question. “Of school.”
Listening, it all sounds good. Makes sense. But there are… holes. It didn’t go after any of those things, it didn’t make a sound, it went after bodies. It took flesh and bone. This is going to take time. He’ll have to figure out what it is. Maybe then he can assess whether it is a threat, and how to protect himself against it.
But then the real horror happens, hearing his mother get closer and wrap that firm hand around his neck. To talk about school. “Yes, Mom. It’s my fault. I didn’t set my alarm properly when I took a rest in my truck over lunch hour. Then the dart. It was an accident. I’ve never thrown a dart before. I’ll be serving an in-school suspension. Writing a paper on consequences.”
“The principal called. I have to go tomorrow to a meeting. They are talking about expelling you.” Mary’s weathered face is close when she adds, “That makes me ashamed, son.”
Expelling him? That’s horse shit! They know he has a job besides school, a responsibility to the town. Can’t they just give him a break? Brook is speechless for a few moments, hearing her say she’s ashamed of him. She has every right to be, but it still hurts. Deeply. “Did they say why?” is all he can manage through the lump of shame in his throat.
She releases his neck, a slight frown of shame but also of sadness. “Your grades. You keep sleeping in class.”
Brook winces a little at his mother taking her hand back, hating that look of shame on her face. “It was a stupid question. I’m sorry.” But at the same time, it’s a struggle to do things this way. His mother knows her son can’t sleep when the moon was out, and about his nightmares when he can sleep. “I’ll do better with my grades. Study more at night. And I’ll… I will try my best not to fall asleep. I don’t want to disappoint you.”
She leans back and sighs. “There are mountains to carry, and there are mountains to cross. I will go to the meeting.” She stands up, her muscles taut from a long day and night’s labors. She rubs her shoulder. “I am tired, son.” She then places both hands on his shoulders and looks down intently. “I am very pleased you are safe.” A single muscled hand then cups her son’s cheek. A smile tugs at her lips. “So big.”
Mary Madcatcher hadn’t birthed the young man, but she may as well have with the sway she has over him. Feeling her hands on his shoulders, he has to bite his tongue to keep emotions down as she smiles at him, if just for a moment. “I’ll do better,” he mutters, slowly putting a hand on hers. “You should sleep. I’ll get ready for school and finish that paper quickly so I can return to classes normally. I’ll show them I can still be a good student on top of a Ranger.”
She pats his face in another rare gesture of affection. “Wake me before you go.” With that she lumbers out of the room, limping a bit as she allows fatigue to strip away her strength.
They sleep wherever they drop, usually. Though Brook has decorated the room here just a little, seeing as how he’s here during the night. Despite that, he always keeps it clean for his mother and for Chet if they needed to crash. He’s even found an older TV and fit it with bunny ears. Though that’s more in case he has someone over.
He doesn’t idly watch her limp away though, he follows her and puts a hand on her back to signal her to use him as support. Once he’s in his room, he grabs two sets of clothes for the day and leaves her to sleep. In his old clothes, he starts his morning routine. Today is going to be rough, but it’s going to be worth it to see her proud. At least she’ll get a few hours’ rest before it’s time to go.
Brook does his morning exercise, showers, and dresses. Following the clock closely before it’s nearly time to get out of here. Brewing one last pot of coffee, all that’s left to do it sign out, flicking the microphone back on. “Well, everyone, it’s nearly another morning in Witiko Falls. Time for me to get going. If you’re a classmate, I’ll see you soon. If you’re a listening at home I’ll see you tonight. One last time before I’m headed out the door, I want to remind everyone of our emergency alert—”
Reading from the page one last time, he describes the man and wishes everyone a safe day, before flicking the mic off and the playlist back on. Ever so quietly, he makes his way to the bedroom door, knocking to wake his mother up, bag already on his shoulders, full of his school—and sketchbooks.
Mary groggily rouses. Still dressed in her work-pants and boots, she throws a blanket over her sleeveless undershirt and her hard-packed muscles and wide breasts. “Did you eat yet?” she asks.
“A few hours ago, Ma. I have a lunch packed, too. Do you need anything before I head out?”
She shakes her head. “Did you sleep?” There is not a lot of hope in her tone, but she asks it all the same.
“No. Still not able too, Ma. I don’t even feel tired until the sun comes up. I’m sorry.” It’s something they’ve been dealing with for a long time. She knows the answer.
A mother has to ask. Has to hope. She nods. “Plans for after school today and this weekend?”
“I’m picking up litter for my math teacher in the parking lot after school. Then I promised to take Danny and his girlfriend to the record store. This weekend I’m not sure about, besides sleeping and doing the night shift. Is there anything you wanted me to do?”
Mary’s quiet a while as she contemplates the question. If she were a man, she might rub her morning stubble, but she settles for scratching her stomach. “Today, you take the evening off. Just be back by midnight to cover things here. But I’ll need you for the weekend. We’re stretched thin right now. Also, there’s Nadie Crowshoe. Her funeral is Saturday morning. We should go if we can.”
Brook nods a little, thinking back to Crowshoe. “Cindy, her daughter, freaked out yesterday… I can’t believe she was even in class. But understood. I hear you have your hands full with a joke of a US Marshal, so I’ll do what I can to help. I wouldn’t complain if you sent me back to the pass to give that shadow its soul back, though.”
He grins a little at his joke, but steps out the way so she can leave the bedroom. “I made a fresh pot of coffee. You get some rest today too, Ma. I’ll be in the school library until school is out.”
Mary nods appreciatively and makes her way to the coffee pot. “Keep your radio on, after school, in case I need you.” With that parting instruction, Brook is ‘free’ to go head out to school—or at least his in-school suspension.
It’s all in his bag. Radio and sidearm. Box of capsule cartridges in the truck along with the rest of his work stuff. “I will, Ma. Please don’t push yourself too hard while I’m gone.” With that, he heads out. Back into his truck. Gun and radio locked up in the glove box before he starts off. Driving to school at least is safe, the sun isn’t out yet. Falling asleep at the wheel would be a disaster.
He gets to to the school earlier than normal. An entire day in the library won’t be so bad. He’ll finish that paper asap. Then maybe… read up on his new ‘friend’ in the pass. Today is going to be a day, and he isn’t going to sleep until lunch. Then, not until after school. Least being here early means there’s a chance he can see Danny.
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 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?”
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 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.”
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 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.
“Um, sure,” the cupid-face girl says. A few upperclassmen pass by, and say hello to the disk jockey.
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. "
“What?!” June’s face looks like she just got slapped. “Why?!”
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.”
June struggles for words. “What… is there anything I can do?” Daniel’s bus rolls into the parking lot.
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.”
“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 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.”
“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 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.”
Now it’s Daniel’s turn to be shocked. “What?!” June breaks into tears. Daniel stands there agog.
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.”
Daniel hugs June, who quickly wipes her eyes and apologizes for “losing it.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 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?”
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.”
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.”
“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 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.
“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 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.
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
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.
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 continues 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, things that maybe you’ve forgotten or maybe that I should have told you about a long time ago._
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 they 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 away from Witiko Falls? 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.
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, firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.
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 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.
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 frowns and opens it.
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.
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 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.
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 glances at them, and then in a flick of amusement, is dressed in the romanticized garb of an early 19th century German peasant girl.
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 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 fades, Hazel is garbed in a voluminous gold and silver dress with an ermine-trimmed mantle draping from her shoulders. 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.
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,
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 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.
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 sharply glances about her surroundings for the unseen attacker. Catherine the Great would likely seek immediate retaliation, but Hazel remains Hazel, and curiosity drives her foremost of all. 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.
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.
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 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, Vice Principal, on the means you have chosen to ensure our privacy,” Hazel states as she approaches him. “I will first ask if ‘Vice Principal’ 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. And perhaps here more than any other place, there is great significance in names and symbols.”
in Witiko Falls High School, where you and I are now is a mystery other than the one we are here to discuss.”
“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.”
“Yes,” he says scooping up another glob of fatty grey matter, “Please proceed.”
“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 in it 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 where a far greater degree of cognitive aptitude manifests. I am not fully certain what triggers them, 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 do not yet know. In 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.
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.”
“The subject matter—and subject—are of great interest to me, Uncle Leo.”
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 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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“In several senses.” Hazel waits expectantly. Uncle Leo seems to be building to some larger point.
“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’.”
“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 what consciousness is and what makes a person who they are. 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.”
“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 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.”
“On the contrary, it is her semantic and episodic memories which remain the most devastated. What you speak of is her procedural memory.”
Hazel inclines her head as her terminological error is pointed out. “I clearly should not attempt to speak of subjects I know little of.”
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.”
“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.”
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.”
“Nor would she seem likely to even remember one’s attempts at instruction. But I would not label it a complete waste of time.”
“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.”
“She would also appear well-suited to the task of cataloging books, even if the initial instructive process would prove arduous for her teacher.”
“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.
“I had wondered where she was during the years between her suicide and employment at the high school.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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 looks no less personally frustrated as the tape resumes. She, too, has great difficulty ‘connecting the dots’ between less familiar concepts.
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.
“‘She can develop, albeit with some difficulty, new procedural memories,’” Hazel recites.
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?”
“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 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 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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
The term is one well-familiar to Hazel. She has heard from many psychologists that she has issues with her own executive functioning.
“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.”
“Or more simply, it is the part of the brain concerned with fear.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
“Some would. I would not,” Hazel states. “But I digress from the subject at hand.”
“Perhaps not,” Leo says thoughtfully. “Why do you suggest you would not; whereas, she clearly does?”
“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.”
“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.”
“Layne is capable of making decisions. She does not remember why
she makes the decisions that she does.”
“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.”
“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.”
“There is one more point to consider. Her choice.”
“To work as an assistant librarian? I am aware of no other significant ones she has been faced with,” the literal-minded dreamer asks.
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.”
“I have volunteered to pay it. My mind has not changed.”
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 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.
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
GM: The operatives let the mentally and physically worn teen rest for a while. Then, his training begins. It starts with a camp-sized barbecue grill and two folding lawn chairs. Agent Ridley stands, still dressed in his suit but now wearing a frilly ‘Kiss the Cook’ apron. He’s flipping steaks on the grill, marinating and seasoning them. “The first lesson of being an operative is this: Feed the Beast.”
“I’m not yanking your tally-whacker, either. This is a life or death lesson. Feed the Beast.” He drizzles on more of the marinade and flips one of the bloody steaks, searing its other side. “Because if you don’t—the Beast will feed itself. And maybe it eats you, or a loved one, or some innocent bystander, but any way it screws the pooch, the pooch is screwed. So repeat after me: Rule number one is to feed the Beast.” Ridley flips the other steak and breathes in deeply. He looks over at his still-silent pupil.
Kurt: Kurt feels a lot fresher and better rested now; he looks at Ridley with a degree of amusement. Nonetheless, Kurt nods his head emphatically at Ridley’s life-lesson. The smell of the steak is certainly mouth-watering, and feeling pretty hungry, Kurt can’t help agreeing with the man. “Rule number one is to feed the Beast, Ridley.”
GM: “That’a boy,” the black ops agent says with a grin, made all the more ludicrous by his apron.
Kurt: Kurt adds a little cheekily, “No worries.” He grins. “Out of curiosity, is that apron for Chippy?”
GM: The pair are literally out in a starry field in the middle of nowhere, the airstream barely visible in the distance, the faint gleam of the charcoal reflecting on the aluminum. Ridley cocks his shaved head again. “Ridley’s Rule Number 2, ace, don’t poke the Beast—unless you really have to. And by Beast, I mean Chippy.” He laughs hard. Flipping the stakes again, he adds, “Believe or not, Kurt, but this apron was Chippy’s.”“She chucked it, so I uh appropriated it for government use. Eminent domain, I think they call it. It pisses her off.”
Kurt: Kurt looks around a little nervously to make sure Chippy isn’t within earshot of the pair—despite being in the middle of nowhere.
GM: “Hence Rule No. 2.”
Kurt: “Why does she distrust me?” Kurt asks rather suddenly.
GM: “Don’t take it personal, ace. She distrusts anyone she hasn’t shot twice in the head. Remember, Chippy’s got PBS.”
Kurt: Kurt smiles nervously. “Yeah. I remember, of course.” He stares at the cooking steaks and licks his chops a little.
GM: “Good, good,” Ridley says, taking a swig straight from the marinade. “Now pass me the plates,” he adds.
Kurt: “It’s been a while since I ate anything that smelled this good,” Kurt remarks, living on staples for the last couple weeks—the quarterly heating bill made a temporary hole of the family’s grocery budget. He grabs the plates as indicated and passes them to Ridley.
GM: As Ridley starts slapping the massive steaks onto the plates, he says, “Yeah, well, I hope you like your steaks one step shy of moo-ing. If I cook them any longer, we might attract a bear or pack of wolves. And then I’d have to shoot ‘em, which is no good because we’re trying to maintain a low profile.”
Kurt: Kurt isn’t sure if Ridley’s joking.
GM: The steaks do smell absolutely amazing. The richness and redness of the meat. There’s a primal, masculine pleasure to it. Kurt has no doubt they smell good enough to attract wildlife—or good enough to kill for.
Kurt: “It’s okay. I like my steaks mooing.”
GM: “Hallelujah,” Ridley says with a smirk. He sits down and pops open a soda bottle for both of them, then grabs his fork and knife. “But that leads up to Ridley’s Rule No. 34. If you gotta kill somebody, don’t go for the gun unless you have to. They’re noisy as Jesus’ second coming.”
Kurt: The thought of violence and death causes a chill to pass. “Do you really think I’ll have to kill someone, Ridley?” he asks.
GM: Ridley makes another paper napkin bib, then slices off a hunk of meat. “Let’s get there when and if we get there. In the meantime, back to Ridley’s Rule No. 1: Feed the Beat.”
Kurt: Kurt smiles at that.
GM: Between mouthfuls of succulent steak, Ridley continues the lesson. “See, the knights running with buckets on their heads, they had this saying, ‘First the horse, then the man’. Which is horseshit some stableboy made them swallow. First feed your own belly, so your belly can feed you. Then you’ll have the strength to take care of others.” He rips into another steak piece. “Understand?”
Kurt: Kurt appreciates the statement with a surprising bit of understand. “I understand. It’s the reason I want a scholarship,” he explains, beginning to hanker into his meat. “I want to be able to look after my ma and sister.”
GM: “Right, right,” Ridley says between chewing down gulps of steak. “Now Ridley’s Rule No. 3 is similar but related: Sleep is for the weak. But the corollary to that rule is: Everyone is weak. So you need to sleep. It’s like ammo, refill it when you can, and as much as you can carry without slowing you down, and don’t go into battle without it. Unless you really have to—and then, don’t expect to go guns blazing.”
Kurt: Kurt nods his head again. “I think these rules are coming down to knowing my limitations and knowing that I am only human.” Considering his broken foot, he chews his steak a little more slowly. The car accident shocked him, but ultimately it taught him that his life is pretty damn fragile.
GM: Perhaps it is that newfound sense of life’s fragility, but Kurt finds the juicy steak to be beyond compare. As he slows down to savor each bite, he can feel the vitality pouring into him. Sweet, succulent, and primal. A fire that must be fed, yes, but one which has great power. He feels that fire lick his lips, spread down his gullet, and spread into his loans. Under the diamond cold sky, surrounded by pristine wilds that still regard man as a stranger, and sitting beside burning coals, the experience is transcendent. As if the experience transfixes and transcends time. And connects him to the atavistic pleasures of long-dead paleolithic ancestors.
Kurt: “Holy shit balls!” Kurt swears in surprise. “This steak is amazing!”
GM: “Holy shit balls,” Ridley chuckles in agreement as he licks his fingers.
Kurt: Kurt continues eating, chuckling along with Ridley. “Do you think my ma and sister are okay?” he asks, bringing the topic back to the family he left behind. “It got really, really strange back there; do you know what happened, Ridley?”
GM: Ridley chews for a good-long time. “Don’t know, ace. That’s something you’ll have to ask the Wizard. I’m not the smartest apple in the cart.”
Kurt: Kurt smiles. “Same. That’s why I am hoping to get a sports scholarship,” he admits, “but maybe I can get one with my photography. I am not sure if they give scholarships for photography, though.” He adds, “Might have to look into it considering my broken leg.”
GM: “Hmm, so you know your way around cameras…” Ridley’s thoughts turn inwards.
Kurt: “Yeah,” Kurt nods, eating. Cheerful. Complacent.
GM: “You do audio too?”
Kurt: “Yes. I am vice president of my school’s AV Club.”
GM: Ridley grins. “Vice president? Well why the hell didn’t you say so before?” He chuckles, “You might make a helluva eye as well as rabbit.”
Kurt: Kurt laughs, “Do you think so?”
GM: “But that takes us to Ridley’s Rule No. 46, a bug is only as good as you place it, and a camera is only as good as you point it.” Ridley wipes his face and even licks off a spot of sauce from the napkin before chucking it in the coals. He takes off his apron, slinging it over the lawn-chair, and dumps the cooler’s melted ice into grill, extinguishing the fire in a gasp of smoke and steam.
Kurt: “I am mostly good at the creative side of it all,” Kurt admits, “and am pretty ‘meh’ at the technicalities.”
GM: Ridley flicks out a pair of shades. “Well, an eye for beauty is an eye for detail. Or at least that’s what your fortune cookie said from the commie-chow restaurant. Although Mr. Thin once told me they’re actually Japanese cookies.” In the now much darker night, Ridley takes out a gun with a flashlight attachment. “You ever play flashlight tag?”
Kurt: Kurt looks at the gun with an unsure expression; he gulps. “I have,” he admits, “but I haven’t played it with a gun.”
GM: Ridley nods—or at least looks like he nods in the dark. Kurt hears the man eject the gun’s clip and the cartridge inside the side-arm. He then passes the neutered weapon into Kurt’s hands. “Wouldn’t want you to accidentally pull the trigger and blow off these… holy shit balls—of mine or yours. Also, Rule No. 34.”
Kurt: Kurt awkwardly takes the piece; it feels heavy in his hands. “No. I haven’t really used a gun at all,” he says, “so if I suck at this, that’s why. Hopefully I don’t actually have to ever shoot someone, though.”
GM: “Right now, ace, we’re working on Rule No. 46.” He clicks on the flashlight.
Kurt: Kurt nods in the darkness, unsure if he can actually be seen. He points the gun away from Ridley, feeling a little nervous. “I understand.”
GM: “All right, time to hobble on over to the trees,” Ridley says, offering his hand. A short time later, the pair are deep into the woods. Nature presses in heavily from all sides, and the moon-veiled darkness seems thick and alive.
Kurt: Kurt feels very alive; he also feels very, very nervous.
GM: Ridley passes Kurt a pair of night-black shades.
Kurt: Kurt accepts them tentatively.
GM: “So the Injuns had this game, right. Where the young braves would go out into the woods and try to sneak up and touch the others. Three touches, and the brave could steal your soul.” In the flashlight’s beam, Ridley’s teeth shine like a Cheshire moon. “You mission, ace, is to catch me with that light before I steal your soul.”
Kurt: Seems simple enough. Kurt nods his head. “What about the shades?” he asks.
GM: “Fashion accessories.” He grins again. “Sometimes the Injuns had their brave that was ‘it’ close his eyes. And you’re ‘it’,” Ridley says as he walks out into the tree-striped darkness.
Kurt: Kurt tags along, putting on his shades when he finds a good spot. He readies his flashlight. “I am guessing this is how I do it,” he says, preparing to find Ridley in the darkness. The shades, of course, feel awkward being placed over his own glasses.
GM: As the shades further steal Kurt’s sight, he’s forced to rely upon his other senses, primarily his hearing and proprioception. Long hours on mixing boards and in gyms have helped hone both, but this is different. Amongst the vague shadows, the initially silent forest slowly grows in volume. Trees sway in the night breeze, their boughs swishing and brushing against each other as their trunks creak. Distantly an owl hoots and other less identifiable sounds fill the wood, punctuating it in a rhythmless nocturne. And somewhere in that dark symphony are Ridley’s footsteps. Once or twice, he thinks he hears the tell-tale scrunch of pine-needles. Once or twice, he pinions the flashlight and catches a tall shadow. But not the man. The man catches him. Kurt hears the crack of twig right behind him, but he can’t turn around fast enough. Ridley taps him on the shoulder. “That’s one, ace.” Despite his student’s loss, Ridley’s flashlight-lit smile seems genuine enough when he adds, “But you almost had me. Maybe I’m getting slow in my old age.” He clicks the flashlight off and walks off again into the darkness. “Give me a 100 count.”
Kurt: Kurt does so; he counts down from 100 until he reaches one.
GM: This round, however, goes quite differently. Maybe Ridley is getting old—or maybe his training is working.
Kurt: Kurt’s nostrils flare in anxiety as he counts down; that fresh pine smell is a little distracting. Nonetheless, Kurt tries to push the thought from his mind and focus on the task at hand. His ears perk up. Bristling grass. A snapping twig. Kurt swivels the torch around the dense, dark tree-wilds. He searches. Maybe it was something else. He sees nothing there. Only darkness. He looks some more. That owl’s hoots sound in the distance. _It’s only a distraction. Focus on the grass and sound of twigs. _Kurt tries to remind himself over and over, tries to push unimportant noises away from his notice. He tries to zero in on the important noises that could only be man-made. Footsteps… are they footsteps? It’s difficult to know. It’s not all the time Kurt had to try and differentiate between the sound of footsteps and the sound of the wind. Nonetheless, Kurt points his torch to wherever he hears footsteps. He points his torch to wherever he hears a man-made breath. A snapping twig. Moving leaves. Maybe finding someone isn’t about finding someone the first time; it’s about finding them before they find you. Then, the light of his torch finally catches him…
GM: Ridley laughs as the light hits him in the chest. “Well done, ace. How’d you do it?”
Kurt: “Luck.” Kurt laughs but is telling the truth.
GM: Ridley doesn’t. “In my experience, when men speak of luck, they usually refer to forces too big for them to understand or control—even if those forces are inside them.”
Kurt: Kurt pauses, figuring humbleness wasn’t the best response. “I suppose it wasn’t purely luck,” he responds to the criticism, “but I didn’t pick where you were on the first try. It was a bit of guesswork, honestly. But educated guesswork, I guess.” Kurt gives Ridley a goofy, lopsided smile at the unintended end-line.
GM: “Well, it’s bottom of the first inning and we’re tied up. Let see how you do with some more ‘guessing’ and ‘education’. Fifty count should suffice,” he adds as he slinks away with a subtlety surprising for a man of his size.
Kurt: Kurt counts down once again; peering around and listening as the night grows darker still.
GM: In the stillness, all is quiet. Then the wind blows hard, scattering pine leaves and rustling branches. The sudden pervasive sound makes Kurt’s heart hammer as if the entire woods are coming after him. The flashlight catches nothing but the trees and the glinting eyes of an owl that swiftly flies away. The nearby trees and bushes sway like dark dancers against a black backdrop. That is, until one of the swaying bushes reaches out with a forefinger and presses Kurt’s chest.
“2-1, ace,” Ridley says.
And then as if to dispel the notion that he just got ‘lucky’, Ridley passes on several tricks. “When everything moves, look for what ain’t. When you’re out in the elephant grass, and everything but this one shadow moves with the wind, you might have a case of a pajama-clad sniper. Most fellas hiding think the trick is to stay still as possible. That’s not always the case.”
Kurt: Kurt nods his head, understanding.
GM: “Here’s another trick if you’re going stealth-mode: breathe through your mouth, not your nose. Yep, you open up wide and breathe real slow. Keeps you from hyperventilating and disturbs the air less. Had this Jap once tell me the ninjas referred to it as the ‘rice paper walk of the wind’.” He stands up from his crouched position, brushing off some leaves as he does. “Twenty-five count this time, ace.” He then sprints out into the darkness.
Kurt: Kurt is amazed at Ridley’s subterfuge and stealth. It’s not entirely unsurprising after hearing the man talk a little about his past, in particular his experience in Vietnam, but Kurt can’t help feeling a sense of awe and prickling nervousness. He gives Ridley an affirmative answer and begins to count. He keeps his thoughts to himself this time; attempting only to absorb what the apparent ‘special ops’ had to give him in advice and wisdom. What if that thing comes back to try and kill me or my family? It’s a real concern. Why would it only happen once? How can I defend myself next time, he asks himself, and more importantly, how can I defend my family from that creature, too?
He finishes counting. And searches. He wants to succeed. I need to succeed and get better. I need to be stronger.
GM: Kurt’s need bears fruit. Twice, he almost tags the agent, only to illuminate the man’s shadow as he flits between trees. But the third time, he catches Ridley right in the eyes as the man is about to tag his arm. “Aw dang, that’s bright!” he says, blinking and clicking off the light. He chuckles as he gives Kurt a congratulatory thumbs up. “Bases loaded, bottom of the ninth, tied score, ace. But here’s another tip. In the dark or dim lighting, you gotta rely on your peripheral vision. It’s shit for color and detail, but its best for seeing in the dark and detecting motion.” He then runs off into the woods. “Ten count!”
After Kurt calls it off, it takes him less then 10 more second to catch Ridley, this time still far away, mid-skulk. The agent nods his head. “And that’s the end of tonight’s game. Looks like somebody keeps their soul. But we’ll see about tomorrow,” he adds grinning. “But for tonight,” he says taking back his glasses and gun, “We have to follow Rule No. 3: Sleep is for the weak.” He helps Kurt up, slinging the lawn chair over his shoulder. “And what’s its corollary?”
Kurt: “We’re all weak!” Kurt barks, holding back a put-on yawn.
GM: “That’s right, ace. So the trick is making sure your enemies are weaker. That’s why we train.”
Kurt: Didn’t my double accuse me of being weak? Kurt simply smiles softly at Ridley’s words, nodding his head once.
GM: Ridley’s eyes crinkle with mirth, but the Texan holds his tongue. Together, they return to the airstream, where Ridley sets Kurt up in a cot-sized mattress inside. The covers brightly feature the bars and stars. “All right, ace, you’re taking my bed for the night. Doctor’s orders. I can manage with a creak in my neck and back, but you need that leg to rest up pronto. If Chippy starts snoring loudly, remember Rule No. 2.”
Kurt: Kurt pauses, a little taken aback by the nice gesture all of a sudden. “Ridley,” he says, turning toward Ridley to look him in the eye, “I just want to say ‘thank you’ for looking out for me and saving me. I appreciate it.”
GM: Ridley’s crow’s feet crinkle, but he remains silent, as he leaves the teen’s curtain-sectioned area. A few seconds later, the airstream door opens and closes. The RV’s aluminum shuts out most of the night’s sounds. But as Kurt finds sleep overtaking him, he hears the eerie sound of a distant elk bull.
Kurt: Kurt frowns at the noise, reminding him the elk from earlier (the one with the body flayed on its antlers); nonetheless, he tries to ignore it and go to sleep…
GM: The air-rending elk cries continue. Then die. Blackness envelopes him.
GM: *Kurt is awoken by the touch of a gun barrel to his temple and the click of its safety turned off. The darkness is disorienting, but Kurt discerns the fast-breathing and feminine hiss. “What the hell is wrong with you?!”
Kurt: Kurt looks up with wide eyes into the blurry darkness; his glasses are placed off to the side. “What do you mean?” he asks in a confused, scared whisper.
GM: She pats him down vigorously, pressing the barrel firmly in his temple.
Kurt: Kurt whimpers at the violent, threatening gesture.
GM: Kurt remains in the lent sweatshirt, jeans, and shoes lent to him after he met the ‘Wizard’. “Who were you talking to?” Ridley’s partner demands.
Kurt: “What are you talking about, Chippy? I was sleeping!”
GM: Kurt’s use of her ‘nickname’ earns him a clenching fist to his balls. She squeezes. “You’re lying. You were talking.”
Kurt: Kurt makes a gurgling, painful squeak as his love-marbles are clenched within Chippy’s mighty grip. His eyes roll dangerously to the back of his head as he fights to remain conscious, already hurting enough as it is and still in recovery. Nonetheless, by some miracle Kurt remains awake—and breathing harshly—locks eyes with Chippy’s blurry figure as he speaks up. “I sleep-talk!” he says. “Stop hurting me, Chippy!”
GM: The painful grip on his crotch relaxes and withdraws. So does the gun against his temple.
Kurt: “Thank you!” he says, relief touching his tone—albeit mixed with a healthy degree of annoyance aimed at the crazy, bitchy woman. “I seriously don’t get why you hate me,” Kurt says, catching his breath but remaining on his back.
GM: “My name is not ‘Chippy’. You will address me as Agent Hickory or not at all. I prefer the latter.”
Kurt: “Hickory?” Kurt asks, incredulity entering his voice. “Do you mean like the nursery rhyme? Why does Ridley call you ‘Chippy’?”
GM: There’s a slight gnashing of teeth. “Because he thinks he’s funny. A sentiment reality does not share.”
Kurt: “I think he’s funny!” Kurt says, defending his new friend. “Maybe it’s you who isn’t in touch with reality!”
GM: A hand snakes onto his throat, threatening to crush his windpipe. The woman screams at Kurt. “I AM PERFECTLY IN TOUCH WITH REALITY!!!!”
Kurt: Kurt cringes at the rough contact, but his eyes don’t roll into the back of his head at the sensation of pain this time, and instead he looks up at the screaming woman with daggers in his eyes as he clenches his teeth. He looks up at her, indignantly. He remains silent, however.
GM: The rest of the RV does not. Still screaming, the murderously hysterical agent pulls her gun and tightens her throat-grip. That’s when the airstream door breaks in, exposing Ridley, still dressed in his suit, two hands on his flashlight-attached side-arm, its sight and beam centered on his partner’s chest. “CARPENTER, STAND DOWN!” he yells.
The strangling grip around Kurt’s throat relaxes, but only by a little. The conflicted woman rocks her head back in forth, her nostrils flaring in the bright light. Her beauty making her look only more savage. “We can’t trust him, Ridley!” she half-yells, half-pleads.
Ridley’s own face is under-lit, his teeth and whites of his eyes hot and frightening. “STAND DOWN NOW! THAT’S AN ORDER!” His gun’s sight never leaves his partner’s chest.
Slowly, the woman steps back, the safety of her gun clicking on as she holsters the weapon.
“All right, now what the hell happened?” Ridley asks the pair, as he lowers, but does not holster his weapon.
Kurt: As Kurt looks back and forth between the two blurry, darkened figures arguing—the sight of Ridley’s eyes causing Kurt to reflexively quiver in fear—does the boy finally relax, adrenaline-filled muscles, pounding head causing him to drift off into an enveloping, welcome darkness. He falls unconscious.
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, but 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:
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…”
Brook, Hazel: Paper-Cut Corkscrew
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, and standing 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 returns to the library, grimacing slightly. Her watch says she’s late.
And Mr. Fleischer is there to make sure she won’t live it down.
“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.
“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.
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 likewise takes a leaf out of the lazy teacher’s own book. “Have you been reading any Poe lately perchance, Mr. Fleischer?”
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 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 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 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.”
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’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.
Hazel’s remark comes ridiculously too late, with no one but Brook to hear her blood-boiling slur hiss off her tongue.
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.
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 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 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.
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 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?”
“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
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.”
“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.”
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’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.”
“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.”
“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 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.
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.
The beginning of the fourth period bell signals their collective triumph. That, and their lunch break.
Hazel looks up at the bell. “All right, good job on the paper. I’ll be closing this place up for lunch.”
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.”
“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 simply 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 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 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
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’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 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.
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 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.”
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.
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.
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’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’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.
“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 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 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.”
“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
, 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 that 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’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.”
“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.”
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 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.
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 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?”
“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 should I 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 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 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 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.”
“Ah, that is unfortunate. My paternal ancestors were Germanic, so the Vikings are of some interest to me. Nevertheless, I bid you good reading.”
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.
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 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.
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.
At the very least, it’s not the kind of sleep that allows him to dream. In some ways, its 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 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.”
“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 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 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.”
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 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.”
“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 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.”
“Expound, and we will see whether I can provide such.”
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 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 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 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’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 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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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 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 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?”
“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 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.”
“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 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.
“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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
. 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.
GM: November 19th, 1978. It is Hazel’s four-year old 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 long time 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 just stops where she’s at, stares and listens, her presence unannounced.
GM: Hazel’s ‘daddy’ is already dressed in his press-ironed deputy uniform. His back turned to both his new wife and yet undetected daughter, 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 tea-cups. 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.
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 then-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 say the familiar refrain “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 eating.
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 daughter. 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.
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.”
“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.
Back in the Chimera of October 9th, 1998, the vivid recollection of that headline and the photo are like burning flares in 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.
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.
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.
Whose parents’ home she is now living in. It can’t be a coincidence. Can it?
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.
Skin condition, is that right?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.