Couple.

Trigger warning: this story contains frank language describing on-the-job sexual harassment, emotional abuse, casual racism and deals with rape.

“Wendy, would you mind taking table seven?” Veronica wasn’t typically in the habit of giving away money, especially this close to the end of the month, so Wendy peeked up from the register to scan the table. Recognition crossed her face, “Oh, don’t tell me you know them.”

“Is that a problem? I mean, I don’t know all of them, but Sean is Tom’s best friend.” Wendy indicated who she meant with a subtle movement. Veronica’s face went white at that, which made Wendy ask, “What’s the matter? What happened?”

Veronica just shook her head, “We’ll talk later. I’m going to do my side-work, cash out and have a smoke. Think the rest of your tables will be done in an hour?” She also had to do her silverware rolls, which would take up the lion’s share of her side-work. “I’ll even do rolls if you take this table?” She practically plead.

Wendy nodded, “Sure, but I need a full report after I cash out.” She checked her pens, book and name tag, then went back out onto the floor.The table of four was raucous, and refused to pay attention to her despite her repeated attempts to introduce herself. She took a deep breath, wondering why the worst table is always the last of the day, and went into the server’s station so that she could return with ice water for the table, which was usually a successful way to interject as she needed to.

She returned, cleared her throat and introduced herself again, then started to hand out the water until she was rebuffed with, “Excuse me, sweetheart, but we didn’t ask for any water.” Sean’s friend said.

Her face went red and her pulse raced, not knowing what to say or do, still holding the glass of ice water. The man who had interrupted her sighed, rolled his eyes and made room for his glass of water. From here, she was able to get through her greeting, and take drink orders. She didn’t bother to act as if she knew Sean, since he made no indication of that. She simply took the drink order to the register to order it up, wondered who drank long island iced teas for lunch, especially a business lunch as they were all dressed to the nines.

Shortly, she returned to the table and handed out the drinks. Sean’s friend again made his presence known, this time in a way that he probably thought was subtle, by tracing his eyes over her body and then winking when she sat his drink down. “Hey, sweety, how old are you?” This came from another of Sean’s friends. Internally, she was hoping that Sean wasn’t close friends with any of them, due to her not wanting Sean to be a bad impression on Tom.

She cleared her throat and began, “Have we all decid-”

She was neatly cut off, “Hey, I know you aren’t educated enough to work a real job, but my friend asked you a question.” This was from the third person at the table. Thus far, only Sean hadn’t said anything aside from his drink order.

At this point, now feeling very small, she was beginning to understand why Veronica gave up this table, especially to someone that the rest of the staff had generally seen as fairly unshakable, a part of her reputation that she was clinging on to. She cleared her throat, “I’m 29, sir.” She kicked herself for how small she sounded.

“Baby, you have got to get-” The third guy began.

She forced a big smile, “Have we all decid-”

“Look. I don’t know how you were raised, but my parents drilled into our heads that you don’t interrupt or try to speak over a man when he’s talking. Now.” He produced his wallet and pulled out a few five dollar bills and laid them on the table. “From here on out, every faux pas that you make, we’ll deduct a bill from your tip. Right now, you stand to make twenty dollars. And if you even think about handing us off to another server, they won’t get anything in the form of a tip.” She looked helplessly at Sean, who was intently watching his friend. “Now. As I was saying, with a face as pretty as yours, and an ass like that, you really should get yourself a sugar daddy. Get yourself off of those feet. Maybe learn some manners, too.”

Wendy made a fist inside of her apron, over and over as she counted to ten and tried her best to calm herself and to slow her breathing down. Her smile was gone. “I’ll take that under advisement, sir. Now, are we all ready to order?”

The man with her tip drew a bill back. “You should smile, sweety. You look so much prettier when you smile.”

This drew a laugh from the entire table, including Sean. At this point, she wanted to crawl into a hole and die. She was somehow able to smile. “Are we all ready to order?”

Their orders were simple enough, and gratefully the rest of the meal went off without too much of a problem and were low maintenance enough that she was able to do her side work as she kept watch over the table. They all left within an hour of sitting down, didn’t leave a mess and she was relieved to see the full twenty dollar tip in the check presenter. That was, until she pulled out the credit card slip, which she would have to give to her manager before she could leave for the day. At first, it was a relief that Sean was paying, and that he was using a credit card, but when she looked at it, she nearly started to cry as she read, “Whenever Tom’s not around, you should have me by for a good time.” There wasn’t anything else there to indicate who wrote it. For all anyone could guess, Wendy herself had written it.

She swung by the table that Veronica was seated at, all of their silverware rolls taken care of. “Lemme go cash out and I’ll be back.” Veronica nodded, chewing on her fingernails and looking like a frightened cat. Wendy wondered how she, herself, looked as she entered into the manager’s office to complete her day. “Um, Benjamin? I was wondering if we could talk.”

“Of course! Step right in and close the door behind you.” He said in his usual, avuncular way. “What’s the problem?”

“That last table, the four-top at table seven, were harassing me throughout my meal. They demeaned me, condescended to me, and look at what they wrote on the credit card slip!” She exclaimed as he went through her proof of sale and slips.

“Well, that seems friendly enough. What was so wrong with what they said?” The usual, smiling face that he wore shined up at her.

“I…what? He insinuated that he’d like to sleep with me behind my husband’s back.”

“But he used your husband’s name. It must have been a joke, that you just aren’t taking well.” He was now using his shaming voice, which he often employed to diminish people’s confidence and make them feel as if they were on the spot. This tactic was working exceptionally well at the moment. “So, what I guess I’m saying is, ‘do you have any proof of what you’re accusing?'”

“Well, no, but-” She began.

He cut her off neatly, “So, you’re just trying to slander four of our customers because they didn’t tip you?”

“Well, no, but-” She began again.

“So they tipped you well, and you’re trying to chase away business because…” He waited a beat before he said, “Well?”

“I can’t prove that they had a shitty attitude or that they were a bunch of misogynistic assholes!” She couldn’t control her words or the volume of her speech at this point, but just the same couldn’t help but notice the way that he rolled his eyes when she said ‘misogynistic’.

Benjamin raised an eyebrow and smirked in a way that she instantly recognized as being the look he takes on when he’s won. “Well, that just sounds like your opinion, sweetheart. Maybe you should get better at taking compliments?” He held out the money she had earned that day, “Carry on.” He motioned her away after she took her earnings.

She opened her mouth, then shut it and stomped out of the room. She swore that she would update her resume and get out of this store, but just like every other time that Benjamin had been pointlessly cruel to her, she knew that she’d be back the next day for more.

“Come on. Let’s get out of here.” She said to Veronica after she had punched out.

They were soon seated in Veronica’s car as Wendy’s knee bounced up and down. She chewed on her lip and looked outside as her friend studied her. “Smoke?”

“Please.” Officially, Wendy had quit smoking years ago. And she kept that as the official line, regardless of how many smokes she had bummed off of various friends at times. So long as she hasn’t bought a pack, she is an ex-smoker.

“Benjamin didn’t believe you or care?” Veronica said as she lit her friend’s cigarette.

“You tried to tell him, too?” Wendy said, emotion missing from her speech.

“He asked me why I was making shit up, and trying to scare away good business.” She took a drag and blew the smoke out of the window, cracked just enough in the cold February afternoon.

“Basically what he said to me.” She sighed and drew her knees up to her chest and rested her chin on them. “So, you said you’d tell me what happened after everything was done.”

Veronica used the dead cigarette to light another. She pitched the butt outside to join all the others in the employee parking area. “That guy you said was named Sean? He picked me up at a bar last night, and forced himself on me when we went back to his place.”

Wendy felt numb and cold all over. She almost dropped her cigarette on the floor of Veronica’s car. “…what?” She couldn’t help but ask.

“So, I went out to have some drinks last night and settled down at a place I hadn’t been before. They were advertising lady’s night, and were offering two-for-one margaritas. I had that really shitty party yesterday that only tipped me ten percent, so I needed something to make myself feel better, right?” Wendy nodded to show that she was still listening. “Sean was there, and he bought me my drinks. He was easy to talk to, and I thought I’d like to see him again. Soon enough, he’s gotten enough drinks into me, and had me buttered up enough that I accepted when he asked if I wanted to come over. Whatever.

“We get to his place, and right away he tries to shove his tongue down my throat. I thought he was just a little aggressive, and since he has such a nice place, I kind of already assumed that he would be. I push him back a little, which made him push me against the wall. I tried to tell him to stop, that I wasn’t comfortable with what he was doing, and he did it anyway.” There was silence for a moment before she said, almost as an afterthought, “Bastard even had a condom and lube to keep from leaving any evidence. It would be my word against his if I tried to bring charges against him.”

The car was silent until Wendy reached over the center console and gave Veronica a tight hug. Neither one of them said anything else before parting, not knowing what else could be said.

Wendy compromised with herself, saying that it was just going to be one pack, and that it didn’t mean anything. That she would be sure to go to the gym five times the following week to make up for it, but just the same, she was two into a fresh pack of cigarettes at the townhouse she shared with Tom by the time he came in. She ashed her smoke in a bowl nearby, as he greeted her.

“Bad day?” He asked tenderly.

“Like you wouldn’t believe.” She rested her smoke on the bowl and ran to her husband. She burrowed into him, and resolved not to say a word about what had gone on. She wanted to leave work at work, and try not to let any of it bother her.

Tom could tell that something was going on, so he did his best to help her out. He helped with dinner prep, and regaled her with tales from his office, along with a generous helping of gossip. She could feel her anxiety melting away as he insinuated himself behind her as she chopped carrots. He rubbed over her stomach, which was the best way to soothe her nerves. “So, Sean told me that he dropped by your restaurant today, and that you were fantastic. Said he’d be back next week for sure.”

Her knife held still above the remains of the carrot, while distantly she was aware that the sauce reduction needed to have the heat turned down. She broke away from Tom, and futzed with their dinner, before he put his hand on hers, “Hey, you gonna tell me what’s wrong?”

She shook her head a little, once again kicking herself for feeling small again. “I really would just like to put this day behind me and not worry about it again.”

“Come on, it must’ve been a bad day if you bought a pack of cigarettes after we quit together at the engagement party. You remember that, right?” As if she could forget. He was so mindful of how she felt when he presented her the ring, not wanting to put her on the spot or make her feel embarrassed, while also inviting only their closest friends to be witnesses. Large crowds and all of that always made her feel nervous.

She sighed heavily began to recount her day off to him, busying herself with their dinner as she did, so as to not have to look at him as she told her husband about the way her husband’s friend had allowed and later joined in on her harassment, and then dovetailing it off into Veronica’s story. When she was finished, she was taken aback to see that her husband was wearing a very nonplussed face. “What? What’s that look for?” She asked.

“Well, I think you should just be a little more patient with these guys. I mean, it sounds like they were just having some fun and blowing off steam.” He said in a blase tone.

“More patient? They were-”

“Honey, they didn’t touch you and they gave you a big tip. I don’t see what the problem is. Besides, you know how these finance guys are, it’s a big boy’s club! They just forget where they were at the moment.” He went to give her a hug, but she placed her hand on his chest and looked up at him, confused and hurt. “What? What’s the matter?”

“You don’t believe me?” She nearly squeaked.

“I didn’t say I don’t believe you, just that you should know how to take a joke by now. I mean, you’ve known Sean for years by now.”

“And he’s never acted like that around me by now, Tom!” Her face was turning as red as it was when she was taking the table’s order. “And he said that he wanted to sleep with me!”

“Actually, you said that there wasn’t a name that went with the message, so you’re just accusing him of stuff as far as I can see. Did you bring the slip with you?” He was wearing a condescending smirk, one that she’d only seen him employ when talking to an especially thick child.

“You know I didn’t! You know I ca-”

“So, you really are just accusing my friend of harassing you and trying to get into your pants. How is that any different from your friend claiming that he raped her?”

The world dropped out from beneath Wendy, “Claimed? Veronica wasn’t ‘claiming’ anything. She didn’t want to fuck him, and he did anyway!” Dinner was now forgotten at this point.

“Well, does she have any proof?” There was that condescending tone again, and Wendy wanted to scream. Who was this that she was talking to? Where was her husband? The man who held her and soothed her and comforted her after their miscarriage last year, and who had even said that it was ‘their’ miscarriage.

“He didn’t leave any proof! I even mentioned tha-”

“Well, that just sounds very convenient to me. The way that you’re trying to throw Sean’s friends under the bus like you are. Trying to get them banned from a restaurant just because your little friend regretted being easy.”

Wendy’s head was spinning. “None of this is convenient for either her or me! What if it was me, Tom? What if I was raped? Or would I need two male witnesses to back up my testimony?”

He tried to soothe her by touching her shoulder, which she withdrew as if his hand were on fire. “What is this all about, honey? I’ve never seen you get so worked up.

“Answer the question!” She struggled to keep her volume under control. She could feel her cheeks heat up and her vision started to blur with tears which she cursed herself for.

“Well, I…I would have to weigh up the evide-”

“Seriously?! You wouldn’t trust me?”

“I mean, we’re supposed to be impartial in crimin-”

She backed up away from him fast enough that she nearly knocked a pan, which was now issuing smoke, off the stove. “Do not. Do not dare give me any of that ‘devil’s advocate’ bullshit. We aren’t talking about an abstract or anything like that. What if we were talking about me, and not my friend?”

He looked bewildered, as if he were totally lost in the woods, “Can you just please calm down and try-”

“Weigh your next words very carefully. If the next thing that comes out of your mouth is ‘be rational,’ then I’m out of this house and I won’t be coming back.” He didn’t say anything and she swept her hair out of her eyes, passing her palm over her forehead. “Funny how quick you were to believe all of Clinton’s accusers-”

“And you didn’t?” His exasperation didn’t escape her notice.

“Bill Clinton wasn’t running for president! We-we are not having this argument again. I have made peace with your Trump vote, and now I’m seeing if I can make peace with this.” She reached for her phone and unlocked the screen, creating an audible ‘click.’

“Who are you calling?” He took a step towards her, with a look in his eyes that made her back up. She felt as if she were in the Twilight Zone, that her husband had been replaced with his evil twin.

“I’m calling my mom. I’m done. I’m leaving before one of us says or does something we can’t take back.” She put her phone up to her ear to start the call, but he snatched it away from her. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

He backed away with the phone in his hand, “Honey, I think you need to calm down. You’re blowing this out of proportion.”

She narrowed her eyes on him, “I’m blowing my friend’s rape out of proportion? Because of your shit-bag friend who you know, for a fact, made a pass at me during our Christmas party?”

“He was drunk and you know it! We, all three of us, talked about it afterwards and there was no hard feelings afterwards!” She was liking his tone less and less.

“No hard feelings from you or Tom, I just said that so that the two of you would leave me the hell alone. And now you just hand wave at my being objectified and demeaned at work, and try to tell me that Veronica was just impugning your friend’s character because, what, she just wants to ruin some rando’s reputation? Am I blowing that out of proportion, or is am I blowing the fact that you snatched my phone out of my hand while I was calling my mom out of proportion? You’re going to have to be more specific, since I’m so poorly educated, and because I only good enough to be a trophy wife, according to the people who you’re defending?” She had to scale her neck up to meet his gaze, but she did it just the same.

“I’m not giving you your phone until you calm down.” He put his phone in her pocket.

“Then you can keep the phone, and I’ll walk over to Veronica’s place.” She walked over to put on her shoes and jacket, but he was quickly standing in her way.

“Please just slow down before you do something that we can’t take back.” He put his hands up as if to ward her off, but she advanced on him, forcing him to back up. As she put on her shoes, he turned to lock the door out of the apartment.

“Do you intend to keep me here as a prisoner? I can call the police for that. Are you going to move out of my way?”

A slow mix of emotions crossed his face. He went from concern to confusion and settled on anger, which she had rarely seen on his face. “You’re going to call the police? On your husband?”

“If my husband continues to try to detain me in my own home, I certainl-” She was on the floor, and her ear was ringing before she could even see his hand raise from his hip and go across her face. She looked up to see her husband’s face, now a mask of panic, as tears ringed her eyes. She promised herself that she would never cry for him again as she stood back on her feet. “Give me my fucking phone and get out of my fucking way.”

He remained standing in the way of the door, and was showing no sign of moving until smoke began to trickle out of the kitchen, “Oh, you better go get that. Your dinner’s going to burn.”

He hesitantly went to the kitchen, still with her phone in his pocket. He turned before he entered the room completely, plaintively saying, “Please don’t go anywhere.” By the time that he returned to the living room, she was gone. He sat down heavily on the ground, buried his face in his hands and just stared at their creases as the phone in his pocket vibrated, knowing that it would eventually stop.

Tear.

By now, I think the entire country is well informed about the disappearance of the boys in Stone Creek, Wisconsin. The simple fact is that, five months ago, Billy Thompkins, Joel Owens and Marten Monroe went into the woods with Billy’s dog, Rockaway, and didn’t return. What was little reported on was what happened when the search parties went into the woods, which is where the trouble really starts.

For those of you who don’t live in one, it’s important that you’re aware of how small towns operate. Secrets are either known by everyone, or they’re known by one person, but in either case, they do not leave the town’s boundaries. Stone Creek is much the same way with the volunteers in the various search parties.

They started in almost immediately, when the boys didn’t arrive home for dinner. Their fathers went into the woods first, all of them armed and all carrying a flashlight into that long day in May. Samuel Thompkins came out an hour later, his clothes shredded and his hair gone grey. He now sits in a mental health hospital in Madison, still having not said a word to anyone.

Joe Owens was found by the second search party a few days later, less than a mile past the forest’s boundaries, where he had set up a lean-to and was in the middle of skinning a rabbit. He asked the search party how long he’s been out there, especially as his clothes were, while whole, very obviously dirty and worn. He called the man who told him it had been less than a week a liar, and even swung at him, but was soon breathing easy in the back of an ambulance. He swore over and over that he had been in those woods for more than a month, and didn’t understand how it was only days.

Daryl Monroe simply never returned. No trace was ever found of him.

Most mysterious of all was revealed in a bar, several weeks later. Joe was halfway into his third beer when he told the assembled crowd around him that the three of them had basically entered the woods three abreast, and somehow became separated regardless of them all walking in the same direction. Joe, an avid outdoorsman, had even tied flags to branches to keep from being lost, which no one was able to find.

The strangeness of the search continued when the local police department, and then state troopers loaned out to the town, sent their teams and crews in. Their reports back to the people of Stone Creek were even more bizarre than those of the parents, as they all seemed to become separated from each other, no matter how they tried not to. Tethers were snapped, hands slipped from other hands; nothing seemed to keep these teams together. And then there were the stories.

One member of the search crew swore over and over that he had run into his grandmother, dead ten years, inside of those woods. Another said that he was lured deeper in by the sound of laughing children, only to find that the trail ended at a sudden cliff (which wasn’t on any map, despite the forest harboring no secrets prior to this occasion). A third was chased out of the woods by, he swore, an enormous African lion. The police were respectful enough of the town to keep these stories within the community, and to not say a word about them to anyone that wasn’t directly involved.

The forest was ruled off-limits three weeks later, much to the aggravation of the, first local and then national, press. One enterprising news crew attempted to go in anyway, under cover of dark, only to find that their equipment fatally shorted out less than five feet past the tree line. Can’t even imagine how they explained that to their bosses.

Soon, as much as it hurt everyone within Stone Creek to admit, the searches were called off in favor of a tip line. But with whatever was happening inside of the forest, everyone had basically resigned themselves to the notion that Joel, Billy and Marten were all dead within the boundaries of it. Life went on, and people got on with it in that inimitable Midwestern way.

So it was until October the first, and the three boys walked out of that forest, still strangely in verdant green as if it were the middle of summer and not the beginnings of Autumn, and into Stone Creek.

Don’t think that there wasn’t any rejoicing or relief from the townspeople. The reporting covered that quite capably, and to their credit, the press was quite respectful during the entire process (save the team whose equipment was fried, but it wasn’t like they weren’t warned) and didn’t press for interviews aside from handing business cards to the overjoyed parents. There was plenty in the story that they weren’t aware of, or that they didn’t report on,which was only visible to a busybody like myself.

The first was that each of the boys’ hair was still in place and hadn’t shown any growth since they disappeared. Nor were they malnourished, dehydrated or showing any other signs of being stuck out doors for months on end. Most disturbingly was their clothes, in that they were all fresh and clean and explicitly not what they were wearing when they walked into the forest on that day, five months previous.

The boys were all completely silent about what had happened to them inside of the forest. No one could make them crack, and so the parents were at last counseled to not concern themselves with their reluctance overmuch, and that their children would open up and talk when they were ready. Ten year old boys, after all, are not the most prone when it comes to telling adults what was going on in their inner worlds.

One would expect that things would go back to normal in Stone Creek after this, but if anything, they did the exact opposite. The Monday following their return, the boys all returned to Joshua Glover elementary, their teachers were all made aware of the wide berth that the rest of the student body kept from their formerly missing compatriots. There was a student assembly called, about the importance of inclusion, but that was the extent that the administration was able to do. This did nothing to fix circumstances for the boys, but so long as none of them were being physically targeted, which they weren’t, the teachers left the children to their own devices.

So life went on for a few days, until Leslie Merryweather, their teacher, called a private conference with their parents after the school day was completed. Mrs. Merryweather was quick to assure the parents that none of their boys were being harassed, and that none of them were in trouble. What she wanted to talk about was their silence. She asked the parents if any of them talked at home, which resulted in careful thought, followed by the admission that the boys hadn’t talked since they returned. It just had somehow escaped their notice over the past two weeks.

“How have you not noticed this?” Leslie told me that she said to them.

That was when she really looked at their faces, studying them. Their sunken eyes, their waxen skin. Leslie knew that they had been through a major tribulation, but these parents looked like they were drained, appearing to be on the verge of collapse. Leslie realized that whatever was going on went far deeper than sullen ten year olds recovering from being lost in the woods and into a place that made her deeply uncomfortable. She thanked them for their time, and showed them the door.

By now you’ve doubtless noticed that I refer to the boys as a singular unit, rather than as individuals. The reason for this is simply that they weren’t individuals from the moment that they returned from the forest. The only time they weren’t together was at home, and even that was suspect as their parents were not forthcoming with the details of their new home lives.

It was particularly that which disquieted the townspeople and made rumors and suspicion circulate throughout the community. What had, thus far, been ignored and swept under the rug was whispered furtively whenever the boys or their parents appeared in public. These furtive conversations centered in on how they always seemed to be staring off into the distance, how seldom they blinked and their maddening silence. Everyone wanted to ignore the strangeness of the situation in all its myriad ways very desperately. They all wanted to move on with their lives as there was enough to worry about anyway.

These whispers grew into an undercurrent of panic when the forest, overnight, lost all of its foliage the Sunday after their first back in Stone Creek. Dry, desiccated and dead leaves blanketed the floor as if to presage the falling snow that was a little more than a month away. The people were now officially scared, and did not know what to do about this fear. Who could they call? The Department of Natural Resources sent out a couple of people who refused to talk when they emerged, an hour after they went in. They got into their state issued truck and drove off. The DNR would not be sending replacements.

Throw in all the talk about frogs and hot water that you like, the strange occurrences were neither slow nor subtle, and they were coming faster after the incident of the forest and its leaves happened. Over the course of a week, people were finding that the doors inside of their homes led into different rooms than they were supposed to. The gears inside of several cars were completely reversed and one person said that his truck had begun to talk to him (a claim that would normally be laughed out of the bar, but which was now taken with grave seriousness).

People began to pack up to leave Stone Creek, but the boxes were empty the next day with everything back where it was previously. Cars were unable to start if the driver had the intention of leaving town. Airplanes slowly stopped appearing in the sky, and the breeze started to blow as if it blew across an arid desert and not in the greenery of the northern Midwest. Herbert Stevens, who lived a mile or two from the forest was reporting that he heard the growling of a monstrously large dog at night. All of this was as nothing compared to what was ahead, of course.

The sun seemed to slow down in its curve across the sky, no longer keeping pace with the time, or with the sky. It was hard to notice at first, but soon it was impossible to notice that the sun was still in the sky long after it should’ve completely set. Still it sat in an inky black night, somehow both existing simultaneously. No one talked about how strange life was becoming over such a short span of time, and soon they ceased to even leave their homes as if sticking their collective heads in the sand would help a single person.

This wasn’t to say that people tried to contact the outside world. Emails, text messages, phone calls were all sent out and they were returned as if nothing strange was going on. We tried our best to tell someone how dire their situation was, but these were all treated as if they were jokes. Most disturbingly, when I emailed a colleague in Milwaukee about everything that we had been facing during the month, he told me that all of that was ridiculous as he was in Stone Creek and that we had lunch together in Beaver Dam the day before. This was much the case with everyone else that I talked to, everyone being assured by their outside acquaintances, friends and family that everything was perfectly normal and that they didn’t particularly think this joke was funny. The worst of them, though, were the people who insisted that they didn’t know the sender, and that Stone Creek wasn’t a real town in Wisconsin. They sent pictures of maps which bore witness to this fact. Soon enough everyone that received a message from Stone Creek were saying the same thing, as if our town had been erased from the face of the planet.

By this point, completely cut off from the outside world in whatever way that they were, a new sense of community emerged. It would be heartening if the situation wasn’t so dire. Fresh food was no longer available at any story, because deliveries had stopped on the second week of the month and most horrifyingly of all, a random number of canned goods were opened to reveal that the contents had spoiled. Yet, we all hung on to hope, as if we all didn’t know such a thing was futile.

That was, until the last week of the month, when the sun stood stock still in the sky as if it were always noon and the sky stopped changing colors, becoming an inky, depthless black without a single star in it while the sun more and more resembled an open, festering wound. All non-human life began to die at this point, then rotted away at an extraordinary pace so that a family dog who was fed in the morning was a bare skeleton at bedtime.

The suicides began at this point, first in drips and drabs, then in mounting numbers. A family down the street sealed their windows and turned their gas oven on. Herbert walked into the woods that he used to love and never came out. Bradley Granville, five years old, cut his wrists open. Hope, we all conceded, was a lie.

Those who held on all held their breath for what would happen on Halloween. It all seemed to hang on that day, as if everything could be stopped or even reversed on that day or that it would all end on the 31st. The day came, and those who still braved the outside world reported to the rest of the town that all three boys were standing stock still in the middle of town square. They faced each other in a small circle, their hands at their sides and their eyes on each other, unblinking.

Bit by bit, slowly, the remaining citizens of Stone Creek went out to bear witness to what would either be their salvation or their ultimate damnation. Those whose faith wasn’t shattered carried the Bibles, their prayer beads, their rosaries and silently said their prayers over and over. Children hung to their parents as the sun slowly drained of color, becoming black and black and black in a sky the color of tar. The street lamps came on automatically, the electricity in town still somehow working, so that we all could see what happened now, as the world was tossed into the seeming end of this nightmare.

Billy Thompkins was first. His mouth opened and his head tilted back, as an inhuman noise issued forth from his throat. The top of his head craned further and further back, his empty eyes now reflecting the horrible sky. His cheeks split and blood poured down his chin and onto his clothes until the top of his head was, somehow, perpendicular to his jaw. And yet, the abominable sound continued unabated.

Joel and Marten were next, each mimicking Billy perfectly. The sound grew bigger and gained in intensity. People clutched at their ears as they wished they could cover their eyes. Children screamed, begging their parents, begging anyone that would listen for this to all end, for it to please stop. The religious held their sacraments up to the sky, pleading with their gods for a salvation that they all knew in their secret hearts was not coming.

And then, all at once, the sound ended. The boys all collapsed onto the ground in a perfect circle. Their bodies turned as black as the sky in front of all of our eyes, and fell into themselves, somehow, as if they were a rent in reality itself.

That was last week. The sun has not come back. The sky has not come back. Televisions now only broadcast snow, and lights have begun to flicker. The world groans around us, creaking and protesting in pain. As far as I’m aware, I’m the last person in Stone Creek who still lives. The rest of the houses in town are all completely dark and lifeless, with the only sound audible being that which the ground itself made. And so, I do the only thing that I can do. I write this, in the hopes that someone will read it. Someone will know that we were here, that we went through hell without salvation. That we were people, and that we are not people any longer.

I hope this gets out to someone, anyone. A final wish to be heard by someone at long last.

What of me, though? I’m staying around for the end. Scavenging what I can stomach down, and drinking water that comes out viscous as motor oil from the tap. I don’t want to die, but it seems inescapable at this point. Don’t worry or mourn for me. I know that I’m already dead, even if I yet move.

I’m just curious as to what’s going to happen next.

Painting.

The house that Simon Robard moved into was, he thought, a significant upgrade from any other place that he had lived in at any other point in his life. He found himself deeply proud of his accomplishment, standing and taking in his living room, bare as it was. Granted, the realtor had walked him through previously, but it had stood vacant for five years and there was no significant damage anywhere. There hadn’t been any reported deaths, everything was modern and up to date as far as wiring, heat and plumbing was concerned, so he chalked it all up to the deal seeming too good to be true, and put the matter out of mind entirely.

The transition from his two bedroom apartment to a two-story home with a finished attic and basement was one that he took with great relish, even if he had to undertake the entire thing by himself. Everyone was either unavailable or was honest enough to offer a blunt, “No, I’d rather not.” This didn’t shock him, as his friends were either flakey or honest about being flakey. Which suited him fine, as he didn’t have any furniture that he had to deal with. After all, an IKEA was just twenty miles away and he donated the furniture that he did have, considering this to be an entirely fresh start in every way it possibly could be.

The process of unpacking, all told, took him about three weeks from start to finish. This was a major accomplishment, as far as he was concerned, and the ultimate end goal of a simple and direct life; the ability to easily pick up and move with very little left over. Just the same, no life is ever totally free of clutter and so, even after he had unloaded every box and put away every movie and book that he owned, after he had hung up every shirt and stowed every jacket and pair of pants, he was still left with three boxes. These were filled with non-essential bric-a-brac that he had little idea of what to do with but couldn’t part with.  He found himself actually fairly happy with this, as the boxes sat underneath the trap door that lead up into the attic, as it afforded him with the opportunity to actually store things in there. He had never had such an attic, and was a little embarrassed to find himself looking forward to it.

As he reached up to open the trapdoor and pull down the ladder, he realized that the realtor hadn’t taken him up there. In fact, he hadn’t been up there at all, which surprised him. He actually found this rather uncharacteristic of himself, as he was generally more thoughtful than that. In the end, he decided that there was no time better than the present, and so he started the perilous journey of walking the boxes up into the room.

What started precariously, finished rather confidently as he figured out a convenient and unobtrusive place to put the boxes. Once he had, with a great feeling of accomplishment, he toured the surrounding area, taking a good look at everything in it. The space was massive, easily the largest area in the entire house, if a slightly chilly one in the middle of the fall. There were round windows at either end, showing the front and the back yards, each with a grand oak tree filled with leaves showing the vibrant color of the season. It was here, with this light, that he saw the piece of butcher’s paper that almost blended in perfectly with the inside of the roof.

He reached up and ran his hand over it to find that it gave and formed a rectangular depression. He took a step back and stroked his chin to figure out what he was looking at before realizing that it was the back of a framed picture. He went downstairs to fetch a table knife, which he then used to dig out the edges of his hidden treasure. His heart beat faster at the discovery that he uncovered, and once the exact dimensions were revealed, he used the knife to lever it down, carefully, into his waiting hands.

He looked at it and frowned in consternation before he realized that he was holding it sideways. He then turned it right side up, and saw that he held a full body painting, mostly in dark reds, of a young man. He studied it carefully, realizing after moments that the painting was done in the living room of his new house, and that it was made recently. The subject was wearing a simple cotton t-shirt, blue jeans and sneakers, lounging back in a low-backed, cushioned seat with his legs crossed and an iPhone in his hands that he studied, with his head down. The subject was a young man, clean shaven with a look of consternation on his face and his hair swept back, with his eyes being the only color aside from shades of red on the painting: a vivid green that stuck out from everything else. He sat in front of a window that was veiled and framed with light, white curtains.

He frowned and studied his new possession, wondering what, exactly, he should do with it. He looked for a signature, anything that would identify the painter or the subject. He ran his fingers over its surface, marveling at the brush strokes and the technique, thinking of just how lifelike it looked, even from up close, which was a quality that many paintings couldn’t achieve. Thinking, he couldn’t even figure out how he could go about identifying either its painter or subject, but resolved to find out. With that much taken care of, he carried the painting downstairs, and closed the trapdoor with a broom.

The painting hung in his living room for the time being, and he was quite happy at how it transformed the area. No longer was it just plain wood paneling walls with a plush, red carpet. Now it was the viewing area of an exceptionally well made painting. He watched he carefully, warily, as if at any moment it would spring to life and tell him who made it. Finally, he went about his day, performing his duties as needs were. The painting was all but completely forgotten when he was turning off the lights and locking the doors for bed.

Simon wasn’t in the habit of having nightmares, in fact, even if he were pressed, he wouldn’t be able to say when his last nightmare was, or what it was about. And yet, as he began to dream, all that could or would fill his imagination was a faint, ominous malignancy. Something that couldn’t be named, but was all the more present and real, surrounding and gnawing at him. His dream-self tried to ignore these feelings as he went through the paces, dreaming his usual dreams, but noticing that things were a little off.

In that way, he woke up, and went about his day. He showered, with that vague feeling of unease, and went to work, wondering at what was biting at his consciousness just at its periphery, at his lunch and his dinner, then finally went to sleep with that subtle dread never quite leaving his awareness. He thought on it, as he brushed his teeth before bed, wondering if there was anything stressing him out that he hadn’t noticed, or if he wasn’t eating correctly. As he rinsed, he tried to shrug it off, and tried not to let it bother him too much when it took him a little longer than usual to fall asleep that night.

The night before wasn’t what most would typically think of when describing a nightmare. This night, would’ve raised a couple of eyebrows.

He was in an art gallery, which struck him as odd because he’d never been in an art gallery before. All he had to go on was his impression of them, reflected through his imagination. It was pleasant, at first, until he noticed that all of the paintings he was looking at were constructed in the same way as that which hung on his wall. All in very deep reds and all featuring human subjects that were different from his in that they were all facing away. At first, this was just subtly unnerving, but as he continued down the hallways, he noticed that the reds were running and shifting as he looked at them.

At first, he walked a little faster, and then a little more, until he was in a desperate run to try to get out of the area, into another wing, if he couldn’t find an exit to the building. It was hopeless, though, and soon he noticed that the red was running off of the paintings, along the walls and onto the floors. What began as puddles soon reached up to the soles of his shoes. Then up to his ankles. He was now in a full panic as the figures in the paintings now began to turn to look at him as he ran past them. His heart thudding, his breath short and his chest tight, he persevered.

As he fled down the various hallways, they all started to slowly turn to face him, each of them becoming more ghoulish and horrifying the farther he went. A mother held her infant, then was ringing his neck, then drowning him in a bucket using water as thick and red as arterial blood. A wife gutting her husband as they pose for their wedding picture. A self-portrait of a suicide by large caliber pistol.

Simon huffed and slogged through the liquid, finding it harder and harder to move, to run in a desperate attempt at escape that he knew was hopeless. Knowing that this was to be his final fate made the hand that grabbed his ankle and pulled him down into the depths a matter of course,  rather than a cause for concern or alarm. It was only when his face hit the thick morass of liquid that surrounded him that he woke up in his own bed, his sheets and pillow more than a little damp from his sweat, despite the comfortably cool temperature of his bedroom.

He sat upright and tried to catch his breath, tried to fan off his perspiration as it dripped off of his forehead and splashed onto his comforter. He panted for breath, then got out of his bed and paced the perimeter of his bedroom. He got a glass of water, and then two, and opened his bedroom window to allow some cold, fresh air in. None of this, however, succeeded at slowing his thudding heart down. He closed the window, got back in bed, on the other side than the man-sized sweat spot, and commenced to toss and turn for the next hour. At this point, he got out of bed completely, and paced around his house, thinking that if he could assure himself that he was safe, he would be more at ease.

He unlocked and then relocked every door and window in his entire house. As he walked underneath the swinging rope for the attic, he wondered how paranoid it would be to lock the door to the attic, and decided to pass on it for the moment. So it went until he crossed in front of his painting.

There was something about the way that it looked, as the streetlamps’ dim light came in through his windows. The dark colors made it hard to make out anything between the borders of the frame. The eyes that just about glittered in the dim light. He stared at it for a few moments, before shaking his head and muttering about how ridiculous his thoughts were before he finished his ‘security check.’

Sleep found him, in fits and starts, and he was relieved, in the morning, that he didn’t dream any more that night.

Simon was not one for talking to strangers. This was, he thought, the main reason why he was a bachelor without prospects in his mid-thirties. The reason why he wasn’t a stranger type of person came to the fore as he stood, waiting for his next door neighbor to answer his knock. He rehearsed what he was going to say, before the older-than-middle-aged woman came to the door. He opened his mouth to announce himself when-

“You’re the new neighbor on the left. I was wondering when or if you were going to come by and meet the people you were living with for the next however-long.” She said and turned to go into her hall. Simon stood, feeling awkward for a moment before she turned to look at him, “Well, you gonna just stand there and let all the heat out, or are you going to come in for coffee?”

He soon learned that her name was Sarah, and that she brewed coffee so strong that his head was spinning after a few swallows. She was also a very good host, even if she talked a bit much, and was also exceptionally good at making her home warm and inviting. He could tell instantly that she was probably the favorite grandparent.

“So, how are you liking the old place? I hope the creaks and groans aren’t keeping you up at night.” She took a hard look at him, the corners of her eyes bunching up as she looked closely and carefully at him, making him feel as if he were under interrogation.

“I’m really liking it, actually. I’ve never lived in a real house before. It was always apartments or town-houses. Not an actual…house.” He said, rubbing the back of his neck and feeling as if he had entirely lost track of the conversation. “It’s like the sort of houses that you see in movies, you know? Especially with the yard and the trees…I feel like I should get a golden retriever!”

Sarah smiled warmly at that and nodded. “I know what you mean. I saw by your plates that you’re from California. Didn’t figure they made houses like that back there.”

“Oh no, not at all. Especially not made out of wood, or with porches or a yard that isn’t fenced in.” And so the conversation went on. Simon quickly felt himself loving his house and his new area more by the minute. It took about an hour or so, but he finally got to the reason for his visit. “You don’t remember the people that lived in the house before me, do you?”

“Oh, sure. No big story or nothing like that. It was a boarding house for as far back as I can remember. No one really stayed all that long, just for a few months, maybe a year or two. Then they packed up and left.” She sipped at her coffee as if it were water and not the sort of stuff that would strip varnish.

He looked at her closely, “Nothing strange happened there?” He realized how that probably sounded to her and hastened to add, “I mean, you know these old houses. They all have their own stories.”

“That is true, but unfortunately, any sort of story that house has, I wasn’t privy to. Never met the landlord or saw him, that I can recall.” She was genuinely trying to remember, he could tell.

“How about any painters? Anything like that?”

She shook her head, “Not that I could tell, no.”

He was disappointed, but continued with their dialogue until the pleasantries, and soon he was on the porch again. “The county registrar might be able to help you out. For your housing inquiries, that is.” Simon thanked her for her time, her courtesy and her hospitality, and as he walked back to his house, she called after him, “Welcome to the neighborhood!” All of this combined to charge him with a positivity that carried him on through the week.

There’s a smell that permeates inside of every government building in the world. It’s not quite the mustiness of a used book store, or of a grand, old house. There’s a more human smell to it, of many accumulated different scents all commingling and then becoming ingrained in the walls. Simon breathed this scent in slowly as he watched the clerk behind the counter consult her computer for the third time, as if it would give a different result from the last two. Simon, however, was confident that she would say something aside from –

“I’m sorry, sir. But there’s no record of your home in our database that goes back farther than a few years ago.” She managed to keep any sort of an edge out of her voice, but it was evident that Simon was keeping her from the rest of her day’s work.

“I-how is that even possible? I thought all of this stuff was backed up on computers?” He had never been very well versed in the intricacies of technology. Simon had always been the sort that doesn’t think deeper of electric machines than, ‘does it work?’ And if the response was in the negative, then he would replace or take the offending object to get repaired according to price.

“Ideally, these records would either be backed up or completely replaced by a database.” She leaned into her explanation with the air of someone who was tired of giving this response and was hoping to never have to give it again, ”There’s only so much money to go around in a town this size. I don’t know if you’ve lived in very many small towns, Mr. Robard, but we tend to direct budget money to things like the fire and police, and everything else gets what’s left over. We finally had the money to move the hard copies to a more secure location and then begin the process of scanning a few years back, but a few boxes-“

“A few boxes?” Simon could hardly believe what he was hearing, always a firm believer that those in charge must know what they’re doing, regardless of how often he found himself grasping for answers and solutions to his problems.

“A few boxes,” undeterred, the clerk continued on, “were misplaced in transit. You are not alone in having your records lost, but I’m afraid that we’re well past the point where these files are considered ‘recoverable.’” She tapped out a few more commands on her ancient machine, “But, our current records show that your house is up to date on all inspections and passed every point concerned before you completed your purchase.”

The clerk continued to explain how it was possible for him to buy the house when there was no official previous owner, but his interest waned and he wished the clerk a nice day.

When he emerged from city hall, he pulled his jacket in close and zipped it up, not ready for the cold air that was tearing around the parking lot. Leaves flew in small tornados while the light quickly disappeared. He drove back to his new home, musing on the encroaching winter. He knew that he had bigger fish to fry, and more pressing concerns at the moment, but this question wasn’t letting up on the back of his mind. He had a strong feeling that he would soon need to let the matter rest, especially now that it seemed as if the house had formed independently of architect or inhabitants.

He was soon pulling into his drive way and  jingling his keys for the lock, when a strong, feminine voice sounded out behind him, “Hey there, neighbor. Mind having some company?”

Simon turned around and saw Sarah at the foot of his front walk. She held a cake container and wore a warm smile on face. “Hi there, Sarah. I suppose I could do for some. What are you going to be feeding me today?”

This was only the latest in treats from his new favorite neighbor. It seemed that every other day since their meeting two weeks ago that she would be bringing him over something to eat, at first because she was concerned for his health, due to the bags under his eyes and the beaten appearance that seemed to be his entire being when the dreams were still plaguing him. After that, it was left over baked goods from some get-together or another that she’d had. “Oh, just some coffee cake left over from my book club meeting.”

“Sounds good to me.” He allowed them both in, and walked into the kitchen to boil water for coffee. She knew the way after her last two visits.

“Well, it’s starting to look like someone lives here, instead of being a used furniture show room.” She said with humor. There was a plate, bowl and mug on the coffee table. The small mess made Simon blush, but Sarah waved him off, “Bachelors! You should’ve seen the state that Marty’s apartment was in when he invited me over for the first time. Swore I’d never marry such a slob.” She eased herself down into a chair around the kitchen table, “Forty years later, and I almost miss cleaning up after him.”

Simon held the body of his coffee cup, letting it warm his palm, allowing the heat to radiate up his body. “When did Marty…uh…pass?” He internally cringed at the phrasing of the question.

Sarah laughed at the awkward way she was being asked, “You Californians don’t think about death very often.” She stated very simply, “Marty died three years ago this past March. It was his heart, the poor man.” She sighed and sipped at her coffee, “Didn’t come as a surprise, unfortunately. He was three pack a day smoker, and was a traveling salesman on top of it.” She shook her head sadly, “He never could unwind fully, not the entire time that I knew him.”

Simon frowned a little, because she was right. Death did make him incredibly uncomfortable, though he had never thought of it as a cultural concept, that level of discomfort. “Was, uh, was it-”

Sarah laughed again, its warm, sonorous sound reverberating off of the walls of the kitchen. “You’re going to give yourself a conniption! Marty went in his sleep in a hotel room in Ripon. He gave his room number to his boss, and when he didn’t show up to the appointment he was due for, they went to the hotel. No one answered the door when they knocked. I gave permission to the hotel for them to open up, and when they did…” She gave a wan smile, “Thankfully, it hadn’t even been a day and it was cold besides.”

“I am so sorry, Sarah.” Simon’s eyebrows knit together in consternation and sorrow. He couldn’t imagine such a warm, lively person suffering anything quite so acutely painful.

She waved him off, however. “Oh, don’t worry about it. Like I said, it wasn’t like his death was unexpected. I think I’d been preparing for it over the years, when his breathing would get ragged and when he would take Tums by the handful, the bottles of Mylanta and Pepto Bismol…” She heaved a deep sigh, “Enough navel-gazing. Anyone special in your life?”

“Oh God, no.” He laughed, happy for the subject change. “I am quite a happy bachelor. I want to settle down more, get used to my job and then start worrying about things like that.”

“Well, while you get settled, I’m going to use the lady’s room. Do you mind?” Sarah said, as she made to get up.

“Not at all. Help yourself.” He told her where the bathroom was and set to washing up after his breakfast to make himself feel slightly less self-conscious.

After he was finished washing up, and Sarah still hadn’t returned, he called out her name. When she didn’t answer, he went in search for her, finding that she stood in front of his painting. He was dully nonplussed to find her where she was. “…Sarah?”

She shook herself awake as if from a dream and looked at him blearily. She blinked a couple of times and then looked back at the painting. “This is…this is fascinating. Where did you get it?”

Simon laughed a little, “Funnily enough, it was in the attic. I want to say that someone left it behind, but it’s more like the thing was…hidden. Strangest thing.”

“Which is why you were asking about who lived in the house before you, and if any of them painted.” She said, as if she were finishing a thought. She looked at it again and shivered. She rubbed her arms a little, “Something about it gives me the creeps.”

“I just wish I knew who made it.” Simon said, leading her back into the kitchen, and their cooling cups of coffee.

“No signature anywhere on it?” He shook his head, “Well, you might want to try the antique store on Main. There’s an art appraiser there on Thursdays.”

Feeling more than a bit like he was on a scavenger hunt, he made mental note of that, now knowing what he was going to do that coming Thursday.

More nightmares, leading up to Thursday’s trip to the antique store. Each one worse than the last, but Wednesday night’s had him up for the rest of the night.

He was a painter, and he stood in front of a blank canvass. He felt compelled to move, to make each brush stroke that marred the blank field in front of him. He was slowly more and more disconcerted, first by the fact that every color on his palette was a shade of red. Then he was made distantly aware of a scream of agony every time he made a stroke, each one louder than the last.

He tried to stop, he tried to put the brush down, he tried to put the palette down, but he seemed to be totally out of control of his body. Tears ran down his cheeks as the screams were now directly in front of him, making him aware that the canvass had turned into a human body, and that the brush was now a knife, pushing into a struggling man suspended in front of him.

Simon sat straight, bolt upright in his bed. He struggled to catch his breath as his heart pounded in his chest. He tried to calm himself as he extricated himself from his blankets and sheets. The heat wasn’t on, but he was more than a little damp from sweat and his body seemed to radiate heat. Yet, he was able to find his bathroom, and when he looked in the mirror, the terror of the weak was vivid on his face.

Dark circles ran around his eyes, and his color was anything but healthy. His co-workers had noticed it the day before, asking him if he was sick, if someone had died but he couldn’t bring himself to tell anyone that the reason he’d been so out of sorts and disheveled was due to scary dreams. “This doesn’t happen to grown-ups.” he muttered to himself, almost wanting to call his mom. After checking the time, he dispelled this notion.

He once again did his usual circuit, checking the doors and windows. Even checking the basement, and could find nothing to be scared of. Yet, there was something especially disturbing at the painting that night, though he couldn’t put his finger on it. Had the figure depicted moved?

Every muscle in Simon’s frame hurt, and he struggled to keep his eyes open as he opened the door to the antique shop. He awkwardly worked himself in, through the front door, with the portrait under his arm. He yawned expansively and jumped at he crossed a laser that tripped an otherwise pleasant jingle, signifying that someone had entered the store.

And what a store it was! In a very deliberate and very carefully contained chaos, odds and ends and assortments were all over and throughout the immense expanse of the antique shop. The smell of age, dust and mildew all mixed pleasantly with potpourri and freshly brewed coffee. A cup of which was poured and sat on the counter, pushed towards Simon.

“You look like you need this. On the house.” The clerk was around Sarah’s age, with glasses resting on his nose that were attached to a thin gold chain that looped around his neck. Simon was at last able to smile as he saw that the proprietor looked exactly like one would expect an antique store owner would look.

“You have no idea how much I appreciate this, sir.” He leaned the painting against the counter and picked up the cup. He smelled in the hot steam as it wafted over his face and attempted a drink, grimacing a little as the beverage scalded his esophagus.

“Looking to offload some fine art, I take it?” The clerk was all business, which suited Simon just fine.

“Well, not offloading, and I’m not so sure that it’s ‘fine’ or ‘art,’ but-” He hefted the portrait up and rested it on the glass counter.

The clerk fit his glasses farther up the bridge of his nose and took a look at it, peering closely at the work that stood in front of him, “So, if you’re not offloading, I assume you’re here for it to be appraised?”

“Yes, that’s right.” Simon said before hazarding another attempt at his coffee.

“Ah, then you’re in luck. She was just preparing to leave for the day.” He looked back towards a curtain partition and called out, “Kelly, this one’s for you!”

The owner stepped aside, sat up on a stool behind the cash register and resumed reading the newspaper. The appraiser, Kelly, stepped out and greeted Simon with a weary smile. “Hello, and what is this that you have?”

“I’m actually not sure. I moved here last month, and I found this painting hiding in my attic, like whoever stashed it up there didn’t want it to be found. I’ve been trying to find out who made it, since there isn’t a signature anywhere, and…this is my last hope of figuring out what to make of this.” He leaned against the counter, as if saying all that much at once had sapped out the rest of his energy reserves.

“Oh, a mystery painting?” She said with an air of humor, while her face was all business as she scanned it slowly, closely. “Do you mind if I take this back with me, sir?”

“Simon, please. And yes, that would be fine. I’ll browse while you do.” He was tempted to go outside for some cold air, but after a few days of threats, snow was starting to drift lazily from the sky.

The antique store, Simon was soon to find, was enormous. An entire warehouse devoted to the area’s discarded, ancient items. Every room seemed to hold new treasures, though nothing that he was willing to spend money on. There were even old, meticulously cared for weapons from the Civil War that were on display that would set him back by a couple of month’s worth of paychecks.

The size of the store, though, was what kept Simon from hearing flat feet stride across the hardwood floor downstairs. As such, he was taken unawares as a hand grasped his shoulder, “Sir?”

He whirled around, his heart pounding and eyes wide in terror to come face to face with a blue uniformed woman around his age. “Oh! You just about scared the life out of me, I am so sorry.” He said, with good humor.

That humor was not received by the officer, whose identity badge read ‘Wilson.’ “Did you bring in that painting downstairs?”

“I…yes?” He said helplessly.

“Could you come downstairs with me?” She turned to go, not waiting for Simon to ascent to her request.

He was fixed with a grave look from the clerk and from Kelly. “Uh, what’s the…problem, here?”

“Sir, are you aware that your painting was made using blood?” Officer Wilson asked.

Simon felt all the color drain out of his face, and he nearly collapsed right there on the floor. He caught himself on a nearby rack and shook his head hard.

“I think that’s a no, officer.” Kelly said in a helpful tone to Wilson.

Wilson’s voice was impatient, clearly finding this call to be beneath her. “I’m just trying to do my job, okay?” She looked at the painting, that was now resting face-up on the counter. “Creepy fucking thing.”

Kelly nodded a little, buying time for Simon to recover from the shock. “I’ve never seen anything like it. A lot of artists mix small amounts of blood into their paint,” She looked up and at the officer, “But not nearly as much as this. It’s like someone painted it with blood as a medium. I didn’t even know that something like this was possible.”

“How were you able to tell?” The officer asked, the edge out of her voice as if she realized that no one in the room had done anything wrong.

“It…it smells. It smells like copper, not musty, not like paint. It smells like copper.” She slid it off the counter and the officer caught it, setting it down. “There’s something really off-putting about it. I’ve never-” She looked as if she needed a grief counselor. “I’m sorry, I know how this looks but I didn’t go to school for this, you know?”

The officer gave her a sympathetic look and turned back to Simon, “Are you going to be alright, sir?”

Simon nodded weakly, “I haven’t been getting much sleep lately, and that was the last thing I expected to hear today.”

From there, things were mostly a formality. Simon told the officer how he had found the painting, Wilson asked if it would be okay for an officer to take a look in his home just for thoroughness’ sake. “Do you mind if I take your painting for testing and evaluation? I realize this is probably just some weird art project, but I don’t want to let this slip if it’s something else.”

“Yes, yes, that’s fine.” Simon was grateful to have it out of his house, now that he knew why it was so vividly red. “Please do.”

Officer Wilson tucked the painting under her arm, thanked everyone for their patience, and walked out into a steadily snowing evening. Simon thanked the clerk and Kelly both, feeling incredibly awkward about what he’d brought into their store, and slunk out, with an odd sense of liberation following him.

Simon slept easily and deeply for the first time in weeks that night, and felt like he soared through Friday’s work. It was as if a shadow had been lifted out of his life, and he was pleasantly surprised, when he realized it while cooking dinner, that he hadn’t even thought of the thing since he left the antique shop. No wonder it had been bothering him since he first saw it, he thought to himself, not to mention the dreams. After the appraiser had said that the painting was instantly off-putting to her, he realized that the same thing had struck him. No wonder his dreams have been so harrowing lately.

Officer Wilson was at his door on Saturday, shortly before noon. She had a fellow officer with her, both of them lightly dusted by snow as if it was confectioner’s sugar. “Hello mister…I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your last name.” She said, extending her hand to him.

“Robard.” He shook her hand, “But please. Simon.”

Officer Wilson, who Simon found out was actually named Rebecca, handed him a ten dollar bill and told him to go have lunch and that the sweep of his house won’t take very long. She checked her watch, “Should be done by around four.” He wished her and the officer she had in tow ‘good luck,’ and ventured into the cold December day to hunt for food.

Lunch was at a coffee shop that he had grown increasingly fond of, the last few weeks, and he was always cheered by the smells inside. For at least those hours that he was in the shop and away from his house and the ongoing investigation, he felt at ease.

He ate his lunch, drank his coffee and paid for a couple of refills while he lounged in an overstuffed couch and read a dog-eared copy of Jane Eyre that a previous customer had left behind in days gone past.

He checked the time, and precisely at the stroke of four in the afternoon, officer Wilson called to give him the all-clear. She and her partner waited for him out on the porch, feeling that they had invaded his privacy enough for one day. “Didn’t find anything in there.” The officer whose name Simon didn’t catch said.

“There wasn’t anything out of place, or anything that we would deem to be significant. Black light didn’t find anything unexpected, and finger printing would take way too long. We’re going to have to assume that this was just some art weirdo, rather than anything sinister. You can pick it up at the station during regular business hours.” She turned to leave, but Simon called out to her.

“I’m sorry, but…do you know who the subject of the painting is?” The idea just occurred to him that maybe he had a record and that they would be able to find him that way.

She gave him a sidelong glance before turning to face him, “This is really bothering you, isn’t it?” The look on his face said more than he needed to. She sighed, “Unfortunately, I can’t release any information on private individuals not under investigation for any wrongdoing to any other private individuals. What I can do is if, and this is a big if, the painting matches with anyone in the database, we’ll have to give that person a call as a matter of course.” She made a face, as if mentally weighing pros and cons, “What I can do is release your phone number to that individual, and if they then choose to call you, that’s up to them. Would that be okay with you?”

He nodded quickly, “By all means, please. I just want to put this matter to rest as quickly as possible.”

“Completely understandable.” Officer Wilson turned to leave the porch, zipping her jacket up to her neck as she walked. Before she got into her cruiser, she turned to look back at Simon and called out, “Please pick up that painting as soon as you can. It really is super fucking creepy.”

Simon assured her that he would, while also mentally deciding to put off that task for as long as possible . “Super fucking creepy.” He chuckled to himself as he closed and locked the door behind him, sealing out the darkness of the night.

The weekend passed. Then the week, and the only unexpected phone calls were from officer Wilson, getting more and more plaintive as Simon came up with excuse after excuse for not being able to pick up the painting. He knew that he could just take it to the antique store, but he was pretty sure that they wouldn’t take it. By that Friday, he was looking up other antique dealers that he could unload the curiosity off on.

All in all, he was ready to put all of this behind him, to retrieve the portrait from the station on Saturday to get rid of it as soon as possible, when his phone vibrated. He checked its face, and frowned when he wondered who he knew from Vermont. He turned his stove off and answered the call. “Hello?”

“Simon Robard?” Came a harrowed voice from the other end.

Tempted to tell the caller that he had reached a wrong number, suddenly not wanting to know more about the strangeness that entered his life and ready to put it all behind him, “Um, yes. Who is this?”

“I’d…I’d rather not say. This is weird enough for me without you knowing my name.”

Simon piqued an eyebrow, unsure of how that made sense, but then he remembered the situation he was in. “Well, okay. What can I do for you?”

“Where did that painting come from? That cop sent me a picture of it, and that guy looks exactly like me. I have a small scar under my left eye and a mole on my chin and both of them are there.”

Simon’s blood ran cold and he found himself needing to sit. “You mean, you didn’t sit for that painting?”

“Man, I’ve never sat for any paintings in my life. I don’t even know anyone who has! How did that painting get made?” The voice went from scared to a near panic at this point, “What the hell is going on here?”

“Sir, just…just calm down. We need to remain rational about this and think about it.” Simon took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Just…start from the beginning.”

The voice on the other end took a deep breath and he started, “I live in Vermont, and I’ve lived here my whole life. Never done any traveling or anything like that. I have no idea where your town even is, for Christ’s sakes.” He took another deep breath, and Simon almost asked if he was still there, “Sorry. I’m-so, I get a call from that cop friend of yours, saying that my face matches a suspicious painting that the police have. I have a DUI on my record, so I’m in the national database, right? So, I don’t believe her, because that’s insane. She asks for my email address, I give it to her, cause why not? Whole time I’m just thinking this is some kind of a prank from my friends. And I look at the painting and I lose my shit. That cop lady’s got some patience.

“I get myself as under control as possible, and that’s when she drops a bombshell. She says that they ran an analysis on the painting and that it’s human blood. And I can’t say anything cause what the fuck, right? She tells me to sit down and I already am cause I can’t handle this and she tells me that it’s also a partial match with my blood that they drew from the DUI.”

“Wait, what? She didn’t tell me that.” Simon knew without looking in any surfaces that his skin was pale, and also knew that the food on the stove would have to be leftovers for tomorrow.

“Well, why should she, man? Not like it’s your blood. I tell her what I told you, that I’ve never left the state, never given blood, never even been in an accident aside from the time a kid threw a rock at me in second grade. The whole painting was made with my blood!” Simon had to hold the phone away from his ear when the voice just about screamed the last part. He was quiet for awhile longer, and Simon didn’t dare interrupt him as he gathered himself back up, “So now here I am. And I want to know just what the fuck is going on, how someone got enough of my blood to make a painting and how it looks just like me.”

Simon’s heart went out to this stranger, many miles away. He sighed, resigned to all of this, resigned to finally hitting the last dead end, “I don’t know.” He thought it only fair to tell this poor man the story so far, to fill in all the details, but made sure that he was also made aware that the painting depicted him in the living room in the house that he now occupied.

“Look. I hang up, I don’t want to hear back from you. I’m going to drink until I pass out, and then I never want to hear any more about this, ever again, okay?” Simon had to agree with this, “That’s all I’ve gotta say. I don’t have any idea how this makes sense- I’ve never even had an iPhone.” He said, almost as an afterthought.

“So you don’t have any-”

“No, I don’t.” If this stranger was lying, he was the best that Simon had ever come across.

“I’m sorry to have disturbed you so deeply, I really am. I hope you’re okay after this.” Simon struggled to keep his hands steady; they trembled in front of himself. He wondered, abstractly, where the peace that he’d had for more than a week had disappeared to.

“You want my advice, man? Take that painting and set it on fire. Get the fuck rid of it, and leave that house. Something really wrong is going on here, and I don’t want nothing to do with it.” The voice hung up, and Simon sat his phone down on the table, gingerly and carefully, like it was fragile. He then placed his forehead next to it and covered himself with his arms, as if he could ward away what he felt encroaching him, smothering him.

The night passed glacially. He built a fire, and sat down in front of it, just staring at the living room window as sheet after sheet of snow fell. A sharp, howling wind gusted so hard that the fire moved with it and Simon bundled up in a blanket in a further effort to not just warm himself, but to somehow shield himself from a reality that was increasingly terrifying.

He’d always believed that the world moved sensibly, that everything in the world was rational to at least some extent. This is what drove him throughout this entire ordeal, that if he somehow had more information, if he had the right information, he would somehow make sense of the place that his life had descended into. But it didn’t. He knew that the memory of that phone call would be with him forever. That he would never be able to put as much distance between himself and that portrait as he needed to.

He left for the restroom, leaving the blanket behind him. He did what he had to do, then turned to the medicine cabinet mirror. He gripped the edges of the sink and looked at himself more closely than he ever had in his life. He felt everything slipping out from beneath him, every bit of sense that he’d ever had in his life, completely revered on him. “Get a grip.” He repeated over and over.

He turned to leave, but when he did, through the corner of his eye he noticed that the mirror image didn’t move with him. It just stood back with the wall behind it and slowly wavered from right to left and back again, blown by an invisible wind. Simon came back to look at this, feeling as if he should scream, feeling it swelling and pounding at his chest. Tears ran down his cheeks as the mirror slowly started turning red.

His knees went weak and he grabbed onto the sink to keep from falling as he watched his mirror image rent and torn open with cut after cut. “This is a dream, this is a dream” he muttered to himself over and over as if he could will that into being the reality of the situation. He was frozen in place, unable to move, unable to do anything until the image began to move towards himself, slowly and with measured paces.

When it was right in front of its side of the mirror, and he could see the reflection of his own eyes shaded in red. He met his own image’s eyes and was finally able to leave the room. He closed the door behind him and leaned against it, as if there were something that he had trapped behind him.

Simon closed his eyes and struggled to catch his breath. He felt light headed as he nearly hyperventilated, but when he opened his eyes, he instantly wished that he hadn’t because there in front of him was the painting. As if it had always been there. He screamed and fell to his knees, grabbing onto the sides of his head as he looked at it.

Distantly aware that he was crying, he begged and screamed at the object as if it had intelligence, malign as it would have to be. When finally he regained his sense, he grabbed the offending object and marched it towards the fireplace, passing the front door with a frantically pounding Sarah on the other end. Of course she had heard the screaming and of course she was probably scared out of her mind, but he needed to do this before the rest of his senses snapped and left him.

He looked at the painting one last time, feeling a maniacal smile cross his face and he pitched the entire thing, in one piece into the hearth.

Officer Wilson was one of the first responders on the scene, as she was closest to the case. The next door neighbor, Sarah Olson, was the one who placed the emergency call. She stayed on the porch, waiting for the police to arrive. They knocked a few times before they smelled smoke. Finding just cause, they breached the door and there was the home owner, Simon Robard, burnt and unmoving on the ground.

Wilson swore that she would never be able to make sense of the tableau in front of her. She knew that she could live to be a thousand and it would still puzzle her as deeply as it did right then and right there.

Not only was Simon on the floor, burnt beyond recognition, not only was the entire rest of the house completely untouched by the incredibly localized blaze that had taken his life, but there, in a completely dead fireplace was that painting. The one that she knew for a fact was still in lockup the last time she looked, completely untouched. Unmarred. Still as if it had just been painted.

Lock.

It’s funny how many things you do automatically, without even thinking and how those things can often have large consequences.

What turns my mind towards this observation is what happened because I didn’t think to either lock the door or bring my keys with me when I went out to the trash bins.

Gratefully, I had thought to put on my jacket and shoes, or else, when I came back to the door afterwards and found the door unlocked, I would’ve been in a more immediate danger than what I eventually faced. I looked down at the knob as if it had betrayed me, tried again and then, lacking any other thought, I knocked on the door.

When the other side knocked back, I was so badly staggered that I almost ended up falling into the snow on the walkway. I looked around, at a total loss as to what to do, and advanced towards the door. Hesitating for a moment, I decided to put my ear up to it and listened as best as I could to any sign of life inside.

I knew I could hear something, but I couldn’t quite make out what it was. It took me a moment, but I realized it was breathing. Heavy breathing, like an especially large, hungry dog. More scared than I could remember being in my life, I cast around to my neighbors. Seeing their light on in the living room window, I advanced towards their door and knocked on it.

After a minute or so, their door creaked open and I felt like a creep because I couldn’t remember his name. I had interacted with him once when the landlord held an impromptu neighborhood party, but that was it. “Hey, man. Um, I think someone snuck into my apartment while I was throwing out the trash. Now the door’s locked from the inside, and I don’t have my phone or my keys.”

He looked at me expectantly, concerned, but waiting to see how he fit in.

“Can I borrow your phone to call the police?”

After a brief conversation, dispatch had a car coming my way. In the meantime, I needed to watch the windows. This was an easy task as there were three right in my line of sight, and the fourth was situated above a twenty foot drop onto solid concrete. Just the same, I found myself pacing and rubbing my hands and arms to try to preserve my warmth while I waited for the police to arrive.

Before long, they pulled into the parking lot, and an officer came up to me almost right away. Feeling more foolish by the minute, I explained the situation, but left out the breathing sounds. I was tense and anxious, but I’m sure he understood. He went to the door, listened for a moment, then knocked on it. He call out into the doorway, but there was no response. Feeling at a loss, he looked over at me, then did the only thing he could think to do before calling it in to the station, he tried the doorknob.

When it pushed open, I was filled with a relief that was overshadowed by my concern about whether I’d be spending the night in the station. The cop looked at me incredulously, but then figured that he might as well make sure that the place was empty for the probable crank caller. He entered into it, found the light switch and I found myself taking him on a short tour through my cheap, but comfortable apartment. When we didn’t find anything amiss, I offered my apologies, but he played it professionally and told me to have a good night. I guess in a college town, having a break from pulling over drunk drivers is something to be grateful for.

The uneasiness that I felt seemed to invade every thought as he left the place. I didn’t know what to expect. I double-checked every nook and cranny, making sure, beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was alone. When my curiosity was solved, but not my uneasiness, I got ready for a night full of tossing and turning.

I slept that way for days, wandering through working day after working day as if I were in a haze. My productivity suffered so much that my manager called me in. What ensued was a conversation so uncomfortable, about my emotional state and whether or not my family life was okay, that I’d really rather just…move on and forget about it.

The following week is when it first happened. Tired and bleary eyed, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror to brush my teeth. Keeping my eye on the mirror like usual, something seemed vaguely off. I watched my reflection carefully, and that’s when I caught it. It was like my reflection was slightly out of sink with me. When I caught it blinking, that’s when I knew something was off. Toothbrush in hand, I almost reached towards the mirror, but backed off at the last moment.

I spat out my toothpaste, then looked back up at my mirror. My reflection was back to normal, but the image lingered with me. No matter how many times I told myself that it was just due to being as tired as I’ve been, it just didn’t quite sink in. The whole day was filled with such a feeling of dread and misery that I ended up not doing much of anything at work. I sat in the parking lot for nearly an hour, trying to figure out anything else that I could do other than go back to the apartment that I, up until a week ago, really liked. Finally, too cold to do much of anything else, I turned myself in that direction.

Resolving to not turn the light on in the bathroom, the rest of my night went as many others had in the past. Quiet, without incident or cause for concern. I draped a towel over the mirror, then brushed my teeth and got into bed. Still with that image in my head, my reflection out of sync with me, I found myself in an all too familiar predicament: being unable to sleep.

What’s been taking me an hour to accomplish, at least recently, was dragging on longer and longer, setting towards an hour. It wasn’t the mirror specifically, it was everything that was mounting up to this moment, and my lack of any idea as to what to do next. I looked over at my clock radio, saw that it was midnight, and I closed my eyes one more time. Inevitably, I opened them again, looked over and with despair in my heart, looked at the display. It took me a couple of minutes to sink in, and then double-check with my phone: it was now eleven.

Heart thudding in my chest, I sat up and turned towards the edge of the bed, for lack of any other idea as to what to do. When the bed started shaking violently, I jumped out of it and watched as it bucked and rolled like a living thing. Deciding that, if there was a bigger indication that I needed to get out, I might not be able to recover from it, I grabbed my pants, jacket, keys and phone. I started to slip on my shoes when I noticed that the wall the door is supposed to be on was blank. I turned on the light, spun around and saw that my first glance was right: it was as if the door had been erased from the wall, entirely.

Now in a frenzy, my heart racing and my adrenaline pumping, I walked towards the living room window, only to find it fading from view as I neared it, finally disappearing entirely when I stood in front of it. I ran my hand along it, then turned and ran for the study window, to discover that it was gone, too.

“So, that’s how it’s going to be.” I muttered to myself as I looked at my bedroom window. The bed had settled down again, and didn’t so much as budge when I stood next to it. I opened the window up and looked out into the cold January night. I looked back into the apartment and saw that everything outside of my bedroom was pitch black. Not a single light to be seen. It was only when the breathing that I heard on the first night returned that I leaped out of the window, aiming for a mound of snow, hoping that it would at least cushion the fall.

When I came to, I was being revived by paramedics. I looked up at him as he checked me over and told me how lucky I was to have just sprained my ankle. His next question is one that I’ve gotten increasingly better at avoiding and deflecting, but at the moment, “Why did you jump out of your window?” left me unable to produce an answer. I was taken in for observation and, what I’m thinking is going to be a psychological profile.

All I can think of is finally getting a good night’s rest.

Help.

Preface: This is a little something that I’ve been working in my head and in notes for the past six or so years. It’s finally time to stop delaying. The first draft, in parts, will be posted here with a compiled ‘final’ draft done afterwards, and posted on Amazon. So, without further ado:

Help.

Yesterday, promises were made. And on those promises, business was created. A way-station for trappers or loggers, the reason isn’t important anymore. With those businesses came homes that housed their workers. The houses led to more business and bigger buildings and eventually, factories.

For a time, success ran up and down the streets. People looked up into the sky and felt the promise of what tomorrow would bring. The streets seemed to be paved with gold, and on those streets, houses were replaced with apartment buildings. And when the bright and clear promise of yesterday faded into today, Jude Jameson moved into one such apartment building. And today, it was snowing.

There was something about the first snowfall of winter, whenever it happened, that reminded him of what it was like to be a child. Even now, as he walked from the sofa to the living room window, carefully navigating around his furniture in the still dark of early morning, he could feel himself smiling. It was a curious sensation, as he put his back to the few possessions he had that he hadn’t pawned off. He wrapped his robe more tightly around himself and rubbed his arms, feeling a little cold even inside his warm apartment.

He went to the kitchen and began his day, brewing coffee first, while he listened to NPR’s forecast. He listened intently as he was told that it would be a heavy snowfall for the next day or two, and that school closures will be very likely, the following day. His coffee was done after a few minutes, and as the forecast turned into an update on a local referendum on school zoning and what it could mean to a nearby habitat, Jude switched the radio off and instead chose to listen to the silence that always came with a snowstorm.

With coffee, comes cereal, Jude thought to himself. He opened up his cupboard, trying his best not to wince at how empty it was. With his breakfast in hand, he turned to his laptop, sitting on the kitchen island to scan through Craigslist. He crossed his fingers as he scanned through the jobs listings with the criteria of ‘open interviews.’ Before he was finished with his breakfast, he had his list for the day.

“Hey. I can hit all these places on foot,” He mused to himself as he sipped at his coffee. He looked outside and stroked his chin absent-mindedly. The previous winter had been so atypically dry; it had been more than a year since he got to tramp through snow like this. “Alright. Looks like I’m walking today.”

 

Jude hummed softly to himself as he walked through the heavy snowfall. He was cheered by the small amount of street traffic that he encountered due to his increased appreciation for solitude. The town was always at its most quiet during storms like these, as he’d learned. Since moving there, a handful of years ago, he’d come to grow quite fond of the area.

He passed through neighborhood after neighborhood, the houses all standing in stark contrast to one another, showing the deep history that he was surrounded by. Businesses stood between houses, and apartment buildings jutted out at irregular intervals. Some of it was due to the town’s past with industry, affordable housing being needed by low-level workers, some of it was due to the college that stood at the center of it all and the rest was garden variety family housing.

As he stepped onto Main Street, the street lamps turned on. He looked at his phone to check the time, and saw that it was already veering towards sunset on top of the nearly impenetrable cloud-cover. He was making good time, and smiled in appreciation of that fact. He had a good feeling about today, and thought he was past due for a good turn.

Really should’ve applied for unemployment. He thought to himself. He could hardly blame himself for how long he’d gone without work. There just weren’t that many jobs left in the area, and the diminishing population was a reflection of that. He shook his head ruefully as he thought of his last job and his disastrous last day. How he had mixed up the time that he was due in, ended up being an hour late and asked to leave almost immediately upon arrival.

He took a deep breath of the cool air and let it out slowly. He closed his eyes and pushed those thoughts out of his head. Can’t think of that right now; one foot in front of the other. And so, he pressed on towards his first stop of the day.

 

Open interviews often run the gamut of actual, in depth conversations with actual employers, or the distinct feeling of being looked over like a pig at a fair. Just surface glances over your appearance, a few quick questions and then on to the next contestant. Regardless of which of the two approaches employers took, none of them lasted very long, with the walks between businesses taking the longest amount of time so that, when he was finished for the day, his phone displayed “7:00.”

He hadn’t eaten since noon, and the cold and snow was beginning to lose its luster. As he stood in the awning of the doorway that he had just walked out of, he thought about his options. He could either return to his apartment and have a frozen dinner, or he could get a burger. He hadn’t gone out to eat in a week or two, and besides, he had done great work today. Why not top off what was proving to be a nice day with a treat?

To assuage his guilt at spending money that he really didn’t have, he decided to go with fast food. Something cheap, hot and greasy would go a long way towards something like a reward. With that in mind, he stopped in at Apollo’s, and ordered his favorite: a double cheeseburger and Cajun fries. Just as he was about to tuck in, however, his phone began to buzz in his pocket.

“Judith, what are you doing?” Daniel said over the din of bar music.

“Dan, aren’t you supposed to be working?” Jude said as he casually began to eat his fries.

“That would be the ideal situation. However, the bar is totally empty. Not a soul in sight, and bossman wants us to stay open until two ‘just in case.’” Daniel’ bar was around the halfway point between Apollo’s and Jude’s apartment, so swinging by wouldn’t be too much of a labor.

“I’m not sure, man. Money’s really tight, and I don’t think I can really excuse going out to drink, especially on a weekday.”

“Right, like you have anything else better to do. First couple are on me, is that fair?”

Gotcha. Jude thought to himself. “Alright. Fine. Let me finish eating and I’ll be there in twenty.”

 

The road traffic had slowed down from a crawl to a near total stop. The plows hadn’t yet gone out, and the drifts were growing more and more as time passed. He would’ve continued on, not stopping to become even more wet and cold, had he not heard something that he couldn’t quite assign a distinct feeling to. It was a saxophone, being played out into the cold, winter night. There was always something slightly melancholic about a saxophone without accompaniment, and on a night like this, that melancholy was even more profound.

He walked towards it until he found its genesis, someone practicing from their apartment situated on top of a storefront. The light that beamed out of the apartment contrasted with the music, a feeling of home next to a feeling of isolation. Being lost in the wilderness. He shivered a little, but not from the cold, and finished the short distance to Daniel’ bar.

O’Malley’s was usually one of the busiest bars on Main Street, especially when the semester was in, but it was desolate when Jude entered. “Boy, when you can’t even attract college kids…” Jude said as he stripped out of his gloves, jacket, hat and scarf. He place his gloves in his hat, his hat on the bar and the scarf over both as he draped his jacket over the bar seat. He sat down heavily, and Daniel poured out a pint.

“There are bars that don’t require a drive, or a mile’s trek. I just wish Greg would let us close down, there’s no way that anyone’s coming in tonight.”

The beer was cold and refreshing, washing away all of the concerns that hit Jude on an almost daily basis. Would he return to school? Would he finish his degree? What about rent or a job? When would he be able to pay for the repairs that his truck needed? None of this seemed to matter to him as he sat in the comfortable bar, chatting about not much of anything for the next hour. Then another hours passed, and another.

Jude fished his phone out and, when he saw the time, did a double take. “You let me stay in here until eleven at night? Man, I’m not twenty-one anymore.” His head was swimming, and he knew he’d stagger when he got up. “What’s my tab?”

“Forget it. You did me a favor tonight, just toss me a five for pouring beer and we’re square.”

Jude thought this over for a moment, seriously debating the merits of paying a tab, when the option existed not to, on pure principal. “Are you sure, man? Greg won’t get angry?”

“We’re trying to get rid of the keg that you’ve been drinking all night. You’re one of three people that drinks it, so we’re phasing it out as soon as it’s empty. Honestly, you’re doing us a favor by getting rid of it before it goes bad.”

“Beer goes bad?” He furrowed his brow a little, his mind working at this small conundrum far harder than it ought to.

“Dude, go home. Want me to call you a cab?” Travis asked as Jude began to haphazardly dress himself.

“No, no. I’m cool, man. It isn’t far back to my place, and if I get tired, I can just lay in the soft snow until the sun rises.” He flashed Daniel a grin and went out into the storm.

The enthusiasm with which he met the coming storm in the morning had all but vanished as he pushed his way through the streets. Still no plows anywhere in sight, the snow was now coming up to his knees. He rubbed his hands together, trying to warm them up in gloves that were becoming more and more threadbare as the days went by. Can’t remember the last time I saw snow like this, he muttered to himself.

On he went, though. Unrelenting as the snow and wind at his back, he was soon enough in eyesight of his apartment building. If apartment complexes had parents, only they would love the squat, brown pile of bricks that he walked towards. It was old, but at least it was sturdy. He was certain that a tornado could come through and not even the windows would rattle in its four-floor façade.

With the practiced ease of someone who had done this often, he took his gloves off, then his keys out of his pants pocket, then put his gloves back on. He opened the outer door, and was careful not to let it slam shut, for fear of waking the elderly woman who lived right next to it.

He shook himself, hard, to get some of the snow off of himself before he began to strip off his snow clothes as he walked towards his apartment. Taking his boots off first, to rest outside of his doorstop, he went in. He felt his foot slide against something just inside of his living room, past the door, but ignored it. It will be there in the morning, he thought to himself as he began to undress for bed, I’m done with today.

David Bowie

david-bowie-as-the-thin-white-duke-wallpaper

It’s been more than a month since his passing, and I still find myself reflecting on him. I don’t know when I’ll stop, to be honest; the force of his personality made him seem like a fixed figure in time, not a real person. Granted, I was never a huge fan of his, and I don’t know much about him, I still wonder at the impact of the man.

I think that’s the mistake that a lot of his fans have always had, though, that he was Major Tom, the Thin White Duke or Ziggy Stardust. They thought of him as a performer, rather than as a person who had to make active choices to become who he was. The image that’s stuck with me the most, at least in my head, is him in his first singing lesson, before everything else. That’s the best way to think of any famous person, to be honest.

Prior to becoming a star, he was just a person, same as anyone else, after all. The difference between most of us, and him, is that he made the active choice to pursue, what was I’m sure at the time, a career as an audacious performer, someone unforgettable and immense. That is, I think, the lasting legacy of the main: to be who you are, and to be who you want to be, regardless of how the world will react to it. If they don’t like that person, after all, then you have to get your audience and the rest of the world, to like him or her.

He was that Starman, standing over all of us, way up high in the sky. He wanted to reach out to us, regardless of whether it would blow our minds or not. Luckily, it did and his legacy will not soon be forgotten. Not by us, those who he’s inspired to stand up, shake the world off and try our best to come and meet him.

At the range

I went out to the range, the other day. It had been months since I used my bow, and I needed to clear my mind. Besides, I hadn’t actually gone to the range in Huntington, and I knew that I should.

When I got there, I was alone. I’ve always liked to practice by myself, so I was somewhat gratified for this. I started to nock an arrow when I heard another car pull into the parking lot. It wasn’t the engine that notified me of this, but the blaring music. I wondered at who he was trying to impress as I set to loosing my arrow. I got off a few more shots before my new companion walked up and took the spot besides me.

I paused, as I looked at him and wondered briefly whether I was going insane or not. His hair was buzzed short and he was clean shaven. He was decked out in all black, except for his denim jacket, covered in patches and metallic studs that gleamed in the sun. He had a sardonic, almost contemptuous look on his face and a bow that looked like it was salvaged out of a dumpster.

He came up to me, with a swagger to his step and sized me up. “Fancy meeting you here.”

I couldn’t think of what to say. I felt my hand tense up and flex around the grip of my bow. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.

“Like this is the weirdest thing that’s happened in your life.” He said, as if he knew so much about me.

“What are you doing here? You didn’t have any real interest in archery. All you ever cared about was…was there anything you cared about?” I didn’t know where this was coming from, the words just seemed to come out of my mouth automatically, almost involuntarily.

He just shrugged a little. “Who knows? Who knows how this is even possible. All I can think of, personally, is how disappointing you look, man. Thirty-one, and this is all I have to show?”

“As if you’re one to talk. You barely graduated high school, and you failed out of community college. You keep dragging me down, even a decade afterwards. You’re like a fucking albatross around my neck!” I seethed with anger at his accusations, at his impertinence.

“Yeah? But at least I’m happy. I’m enjoying my life! Yeah, you’re wading through an ocean of drudgery, but for what? You have no idea what you’re doing, and you’re saddled with more regrets than is even remotely normal.”

“Regrets for shit that you did!” I jabbed my finger in his chest and pushed him back. “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be in the situations that I’m in! If you only actually cared about anything, if you only pushed yourself more and tried to actually accomplish shit, I wouldn’t feel like I’m drowning on a constant basis! It’s YOUR fault!”

“My fault for not being able to read the future? Where do you get off blaming me for everything that you’ve done; as if I’m a different person that you can just load your sins off on. I’m not your sacrificial goat, you pretentious asshole!” His face was turning red with anger, but his voice didn’t quaver like mine does. He was bold and he was strong. Stronger than I am.

Wait. “Your attitude is just a way to protect yourself and you know it. You use your anger as an excuse for everything, and as a means to an end. You don’t actually do anything with your anger, you just seethe and push everyone away from you. No wonder no one wants you around, you’re fucking unpleasant!”

“As if you’re one to talk. Christ, you’ve grown so timid in your age that you lash out in every direction, as if you’re constantly being attacked! Look at this, rather than actually work your way through your difficulties, you just blame me for everything. You’re no better! You’ve just replaced anger with regret as you take on more responsibility than you should. You take the blame for every single wrong that your life has taken, as if that’s somehow a sign of integrity or character. No one’s impressed with your self-flagellation, man!”

“Better that I do that than take no responsibility for anything that you’ve ever done, like you do, you self-centered, cock-sure loudmouth! You talk a big game, but do you actually know anything?!”

He paused for a moment, before looking like he was going to spit in my face. I was angry, but I was still in control. I knew that I had come far since I was him, and that very few of his shots were actually hitting before he let loose two words. “Sell-out.”

He’d drawn blood and he knew it. My face contorted as I dealt with that accusation. I wanted to say something in return. I wanted to hit him as hard as he hit me, but it was only then that I realized I had nothing. I was left grasping for air as he moved in for the kill.

“Yeah. You’re a fucking sell-out and you know it. When you’re not wallowing in misery and attacking yourself for every single little mistake that you’ve made in your entire life, what are you doing with yourself? You’ve resigned yourself to a safe, predictable life because you’re too fucking afraid to actually speak up outside of your social circle. You pat yourself on your back for the brave stances that you make, but you only do it in the safest way possible. You stir up controversy? By telling all of your friends and family about political positions that they already know about? As if you’re so fucking complex.

“You accuse me of not doing anything, but you know what I did do? I devoted myself to two years at RCC after I failed out, and I got the best grades of my life, even better than you got at UWO, because I actually fucking tried! And you know what I was doing when I wasn’t kicking ass at RCC? I was writing, for hours a week, while you basically have to force yourself to write! I was creating, and all you can ever do anymore is think about creating, or bitch on the internet. All you can think about is how productive you used to be, how timid you used to not be and how much reading you used to do. All you can do is criticize me for the ways that I am, instead of realizing that my drive and my impetuousness are part of what’s missing from you.”

He jabbed his finger in my chest and I looked down at it as I realized how right he was. How so many of his qualities are what I’m missing in my life right now. I’d been so dead set on not making his mistakes anymore, on moving away from being that person that I’d forgotten how many good qualities he had. How admirable he was in the way that he just charged into conflict without fear of failure weighing him down.

“You’re so fucking afraid of everything anymore, man and it’s disappointing. It’s hard to bear, and I know it is.” He was right up in my face now. “You’re so afraid of your online world bleeding into your offline world that you curl up into a ball and do nothing. Big fucking deal if you do, you know? As if your family and friends would disown you, or look unkindly upon you if they knew the things that you’re so afraid of them finding out. Here’s a hint, man. Don’t be into anything that you’re ashamed of, and don’t cling so tightly to that fear of being discovered. It only makes it more certain that you will be.”

“So, what’s your advice, Tyler?”

There was that sardonic, slightly contemptuous look again. “My advice is that you stop trying to push me away and accept me. Accept me as a part of who you are and stop being so ashamed of me. Accept that I wasn’t all bad, and try to be more like the best parts of you were. You wouldn’t have the friends that you do right now if it weren’t for me, after all. I wasn’t all bad, and you know it.”

“And I’m not all bad either.” I said slowly, choosing my words carefully. Why are these words so hard to say? Why is it so hard to just take a look at who you are and accept that person, unconditionally? So many other people do that in my every day life, why can’t I just do the same? So many others draw me close without fear of being burnt, why can’t I?

“I love you, man. Even if you are a broke down old man who is so tired of fighting that he wants to be done with it. But the fight doesn’t end. Even unwinnable fights are worth it because of the effects that they spread.”

“I love you, too. Even if you are impetuous, head strong and harsh. Even if you don’t look at the consequences of your actions more deeply because you’re still developing and trying to understand your place in the world.”

And he drew me close. And we embraced as if we were brothers. We held one another until I knew that there wasn’t anyone between my arms. And just like that, I was the only person on the range, again. I turned around and his car was gone, too. I gathered myself up, knowing that I still needed to take the shot. I needed to take risk and let the chips fall where they may. I needed to actually make the effort and push forward. No one else would do it for me.

I stood up at the mark, nocked my arrow and drew it back. I looked down the shaft, my fingers next to my lips as I aligned the arrowhead with the bulls-eye and I loosed.

Sacrifice.

Elizabeth locked the door behind her at two AM. She couldn’t remember the last time that she was so tired. The struggle just to make ends meet was slowly starting to catch up to her, and she could rapidly see the day that she would no longer be able to keep up with the work load that she needed to. Taking off her uncomfortable shoes, she slouched onto a kitchen chair and rubbed her temples. Not being a drinker, she didn’t have anything around to take the edge off the night, and she was grateful for that. She didn’t need one more worry to add to her load, after all.

As she often found herself doing at the end of the month, she looked over her bills and began to prioritize the ones that could be put off, versus those that she couldn’t. Healthcare needed to be paid for, so that was at the top of the pile, then the credit card that she needed to buy groceries, and then rent and at the bottom was utilities. Wearily, knowing that there wouldn’t be a better time to do so with three children, all under twelve, running around, she did the math by hand and found that there might be a little left extra. This would then go towards a trip to Goodwill and not much more.

This little victory in mind, she turned off the lights, and walked the short hallway to her room, passing her children’s room on the way. She looked in on them, all sleeping soundly, and was momentarily grateful for the toil. They were good kids, and they knew what their mother went through for them. They tried their best, but she knew that difficult years were ahead of them. She remembered her own troubled upbringing and could only hope that their adolescence would be less of a burden on her than she was on her own parents.

She went to the bathroom, took off her uniform, washed up and brushed her teeth. And then, as she so often did, she brought out her rosary and began to say her prayers. She knew that she hadn’t been to church for weeks, and that she hadn’t been to confessional for months, but her kids were being brought up in the faith and trusted that God would look kindly on her for it. She just didn’t know when. Her time was not His, and all things work towards the good.

The beads passed through her fingers as she worked her grandmother’s rosary, but for some reason, she felt a cold breeze blow through her. She shuddered a little and rubbed her arms before continuing, but it only got colder and colder. She looked for what it could be, and was left without a cause that she could discern. The windows were closed, and even if they weren’t, it was May; there was no reason that it should be so cold. She put on a robe and resumed her rosary when it fell from her hands.

She rubbed them together, looked down at them and when she did, she found that her room was filled with a bizarre light. All at once, she felt dizzy and fell to her knees. Had God sent an angel? Was Christ coming to visit her? There, striding out of the master bathroom was her answer, and she knew all at once that she couldn’t be more wrong.

He was beautiful, that was the first thing she noticed. He wasn’t of any discernible ethnicity, and his face hurt to look at. She expected that he would be dressed finely, but saw that he was wearing clothes that wouldn’t get him a second glance anywhere that she was familiar with. She thought to herself that it must be a trick and she reminded herself that she needs to be on his guard, that he was the prince of lies and deceit.

“Rise to your feet and face me, daughter. You will find no deception and no games in my visit. Even if my father cannot hear you, I do. I see what you do for your family, and I am in common cause with you.” Elizabeth stood, but did not look at him. “Why do you divert your eyes, daughter?”

“It hurts to look at you. And I am no daughter of yours! I know who you are!” She held her rosary out in front of her as a ward.

He strode towards her and touched the rosary with his bare hand and ran his fingers over the cross. “What a beautiful rosary. Your grandmother loved it well, as did her mother before her. It is a fine relic, but it will not do me any harm. Nor will I do you any harm.” With that, she saw that the light dimmed in the room and she was able to look at him. His face was kind, but troubled, and was sunken with deep lines and creases. There were scars on his face, the sort that would have been received long ago, from very serious injuries. He held his hand out to her and she saw that it was the sort that saw long toil.

“What do you want from me?” Her fear did not diminish, but she knew that her visitor couldn’t just be ignored or pushed away. This was something that she would have to face.

“I want you to have the life you deserve. I want your children to have the lives they deserve.” He said simply.

“Leave my children alone!” She shouted, as if in impulse, and then clapped her hand over her mouth and looked out the bedroom door into the hall of the apartment.

“Your children cannot hear us, daughter. This meeting is between us, and us alone. There is no need for them to know what transpires here.” His voice was sonorous and slightly sing-song, as if he was trained as a singer but his voice hadn’t been used for that device in a very long time.

“Why do you keep calling me daughter? I have no relation to you. The angels, even you, are separate creations from humans.”

“It’s a term of art, I assure you. You are my daughter as are all those who work in endless toil, thankless for duties that they did not willingly enter into. Being a worker, with no choice in the matter and no joy in the work, that is how you are my daughter. That is how we know one another.” He eased himself down onto her bed, sitting on it with ease, as if this were the most ordinary thing in the world for him. “Elizabeth Hartley, can you remember the last relaxing day that you have had?”

She waited for him to go on, expecting that this was a prepared speech that he would launch into, whether she wanted him to or not. But when he didn’t, “I…it’s been years. Probably high school, to be honest.”

“That is true.” All at once, she felt herself lifted from this moment, to that. “A family vacation to Malibu. Your parents had put away money for it, knowing that such outings were a rarity. None of you had been to the ocean before, and you still strain to remember the scent of the ocean and the feel of the sand under your feet.” And then, the memory became a memory again.

He extended a hand towards her and she found herself reaching for his. “Daughter, I do not say this to trouble you, or to hurt you. Your prayers fall on deaf ears. There will come no relief to you, or your burdens.” He said this with a kindness that made her heart hurt.

“What do you mean?” She looked at him imploringly, and once again, she felt herself lifted from this time and this place and to another one. She found herself in a cemetery. She looked around, and found that she was alone. Left with no other option, she bundled her robe closer to her and she stepped towards the rows of gravestones. She didn’t know what she was doing, or where she was walking, but she slowly felt herself compelled in a single direction, until she knew she was where she needed to go.

There, in front of her, was her tombstone. “Elizabeth Hartley, devoted mother. Born, April 10th, 1986. Died, August 25th, 2017.”

She felt all the blood drain from her body, and she collapsed on the cold, wet grass beneath her. His hand went to her shoulder, and she looked up at him. “What does this mean? Why are you showing this to me?”

“It was an accident with the bus. A rain storm came in, fierce and roaring. The roads went from safe to flooded in a matter of moments. Someone ran in front of the bus, it swerved to miss them, and the roads made a safe stop impossible. Your bus tips over and several cars run into it, as it lay on its side.” As he spoke, she knew that he told the truth. She could smell the rain and the gas. She could smell the fire that would erupt from the accident, little more than a year from now.

“Your children will go to foster homes. Without any living relatives, the state is left with no other choice. Franklin’s foster parents will beat him, starve him and collect the benefits from his negligence until he runs away. His only option is to join a gang and begin selling drugs. Stephanie’s foster parents are good people, but all the goodness in the world will not save them from the gas leak that will take them all in their sleep.” He looked down at her beseeching face, “I will not tell you what happens to Ben.”

She shook her head, “Tell me. I need to know.”

“He never recovers from the loss of you. Without a strong, guiding hand, he wanders from foster home to foster home. Eventually, being unable to be placed, he settles into a group home. He goes into its bathroom one night, unaware of the other boys who have been watching him and-”

She cut him off. “Enough.” She stood back up and faced him, and it was only then that she saw what he once was. A beautiful, merciful and joyful being. A creature that gloried in creation, and sang with his master. “Will you stop with this and just tell me what you want from me?”

“I can save you from this fate. I can save your children from this fate. It is within my power to do so; all you have to do is trust me.”

“How? How can I trust you? I know who you are! How can I even trust that what you tell me is the truth?” He was left silent at this, knowing that there was no way that he could bring her to trust him. “Why do you care?”

They were back in her bedroom, and he was once again sitting. “Millions of prayers are given to God every day. From the poor, the wretched and the forgotten. These are the people that Jesus was supposed to represent. He spoke of them more than any other group, after all. They look to the skies and they beg for help. They live chaste, good lives, thanklessly working their way into pauper’s graves. They receive no reward and no kindness for the struggle that they enter into by no fault of their own.” He paused. “His is a religion of the conquerors. His is a religion of those with full stomachs and sated desires.”

She bowed her head as she reflected on his words, thinking of them carefully, and what they portend. “You want me to worship you?”

He laughed. Once again, she was reminded of who he used to be, timeless eons ago. His laughter was the richest music that she had ever heard, and she knew that she would long to hear it again for the rest of her days. “What would I ever want with worshipers, daughter? I left heaven and service because compelled worship is no life at all. Why would I want that for you?” He shook his head, but smiled warmly to her.

“I recognize that this is no small thing for you, and I realize that my word has very little value for you. But, I will offer you this: in five years, I will visit you again. If you wish to go back on our deal, then you will be able to do so. And in five years after that, and five years after that. All I ask is that, when the time comes, you accompany me to my home.” He held his hand up before she started to speak, “I know that this is no reward for you. But I also know that you will not be willing to let your children meet their ignominious end if you can help it. If you agree to my terms, you will receive a job offer tomorrow. This will be for three times what you’re making right now, and will allow you to eventually save up for a home and a car, then college for your children.”

She nodded and chewed on her bottom lip. She thought and thought, and was eventually aware that much time had passed since they had started this conversation. How long had they been sitting there? She looked at the bedside clock, and saw that no time had passed at all, which didn’t surprise her.

She bowed her head, looking down at her hands, “And after the last visit?”

“You know what will happen after your last visit. But you will have a balm that will protect you, which does not protect many of my other fellow denizens. You will know that you are with us for a good reason, and you will know that your children will lead happy, healthy and full lives. That is more than an uncountable number of other souls.”

And so, she put her rosary aside. With a heavy heart, she reached out to shake his hand. “It’s a deal.”

As soon as they shook hands, the light was gone and she was left alone, once again.

She set back to going to sleep, and for once, found herself looking forward to the following day.

Perdido Street Station

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To start out with, I’m going to be discussing end-plot details, so if you haven’t yet read Perdido Street Station, I recommend that you do so before reading further.

I’m not traditionally a sci-fi reader, outside of my comics which are, by and large, sci fi in a lot of way. However, the thing that has always appealed to me about the genre, and this applies to comics as well, is the way that the non-human and the utterly alien can become just as much human as we are, if not more. This is where Perdido Street Stations shines the most. Beyond Mieville’s prose, and ignoring sections of the book that could be completely excised without losing anything, I’m left with the feeling of reality that the characters are invested with. You’re left identifying with these creatures and these beings who have no external similarity to you, and that is its greatest strength.

The story itself is a look at the way that we handle crises and consequences to our actions in both the macro, and the micro. How do we face up to our responsibilities and the penalties that we incur for our actions? Here, we’re given two characters: Isaac and Yagharek. Isaac is a scientist that specializes in the abstract and the theoretical, tinkering away in his shop when Yagharek, a bird man from a far away nation enters. Yagharek’s people are nomads, and desert dwellers who rely chiefly on their wings for every facet of their lives. Yagharek, however, has had his removed for crimes that Isaac cannot understand, due to cultural differences. The Garuda are highly individualistic while also being a communal people. To that end, they see every member of the tribe to be a complete whole, and their choices to be the most important possession that they have. All crimes are, therefor, derived from the preciousness of choice. Yagharek describes his crime as, “Choice theft in the second degree.” It’s this cultural difference that keeps Isaac from really understanding what this stranger had done that was so grievous that his wings were cruelly cut away from himself.

Yagharek comes to Isaac for one purpose: to restore his wings, or at least give him the ability to fly again.

Isaac is invigorated by this request and sets to work immediately. He locks himself away in his shop and he studies every form of flight that he can with species from all around the world. One species catches his special attention, though: a caterpillar that seems to feed on dreams. When this caterpillar then weaves itself into a cocoon, the creature that hatches from it creates a crisis that the community hadn’t seen for years.

This is where the two characters stand: Isaac knows that he has a responsibility, and cannot let the creature that he’s brought into the world wreak havoc. He’s at fault and he has to do something about it. Yagharek has a responsibility too, he has to remain flightless for what he’s done. He knows that he has done something horrible, but he’s trying to skirt around his punishment anyway. Isaac, not knowing any better, doesn’t judge Yagharek for what he’s trying to do. The two are then bound together. Isaac cannot ignore his responsibilities and devote himself to the flight issue, and Yagharek cannot move on without his wings.

And so the plot goes. The beast is killed, but the heroes are unsung, made into public pariahs and are less in number than at the beginning. Knowing that it’s best for all of them to leave, they prepare to enter into self-exile. However, before they do, Isaac receives a visitor, who says that she knows Yagharek. A fellow garuda, she implores Isaac to leave Yagharek without his wings. Isaac demands to know what Yagharek did that deserved such a horrific punishment and here it finally comes to light: the noble warrior who never flinched in the face of certain death, who had risked everything for those that had become friends, is a rapist.

Isaac, knowing that he cannot continue with the work as he has, takes with him the two friends that he has left, and leaves without Yagharek. Responsibility. Personal crisis. How do we handle our consequences, no matter how dire they are? Do we take responsibility for our actions or do we push them aside and adopt a more protective identity, something that will shield your true self from the rest of the world? Who are we, when we’re alone, when there’s no one in the world to watch you? Do we live with integrity, or do we just talk big and shirk the duties that we owe to one another?

Eye Scream

Rory first thought that something was wrong when he woke up and the inside of his eye wouldn’t stop itching. He didn’t let it bother him too much, as he knew that he had to open that morning. He needed the money and, besides, what would he say to Jeremy if he called in? “I’m sorry, but you’ll need to open for me; my eyes won’t stop itching!”

His morning went by as usual, as he prepared his breakfast and coffee while listening to the previous night’s Daily Show. He chuckled and nodded at the jokes between crunches of cereal and absentminded itching. It wasn’t anything too bad, he told himself. He tried to push it into the back of his mind, but he knew that wouldn’t work for very long.

The shower came next. He tried to check his eyes in the bathroom mirror while he waited for the shower to warm up, but he didn’t see anything wrong. Nothing appeared to be the matter, he tried to convince himself as he washed up. And soon, just like an irritating headache, it faded into the background. He didn’t think about it at all as he put on his work uniform and as he styled his hair.

The way to work was as busy as it usually was, with traffic slowing him down and a steady stream of red lights testing his reflexes. He prided himself on his punctuality, and clocked in a good five minutes before he was scheduled to start. Jeremy would give him a little grief, but they knew that initiative and punctuality were valuable traits. Rory knew that, soon enough, they would recognize just how much he does, and they’ll give him that promotion he’s been after.

With the coffee made, chairs down and other preparations done, Rory was ready to start his day off. The rest of the staff would be streaming in along with the customers, and soon the worries that greeted him that morning wouldn’t even be a memory. They would just another strange happenstance among any number that would stream by him over the course of the day.

His first table came in, and he greeted them with the excitement he always employs to those lucky few customers. At first, he was a little concerned. That is, when the lights went out like they did. Had the power gone out? But if it had, then there would still be light coming in through the front windows.

It was only when he heard the screaming that he knew something was seriously wrong.