Order.

If you expect me to tell you my name or give you more than the scantest of details in my background, then you must be crazy. Reason for that will become self-evident as I explain how I turned my town’s police force against me.

My story begins with a crowd-funding scheme, wherein I would get neo-nazis and their sympathizers to help me self-publish a novel, that would then be given free to students across the country. I typed up a chapter that I, honestly, half-assed as proof-of-concept, got myself a six pack and put myself to the task of working the usual haunts. From MRA forums to 4chan, I made sure I spread awareness of my project as much as I could to raise fifty thousand dollars. A modest sum that I thought I would be able to turn to much better use.

After I had my advertisements circulating, I started to work them. My friends and family assure me that I was much less than pleasant during the month that I conducted this experiment, and I know that, if I get out of this alive, I’ll have to swear off alcohol for good. And when I say that I worked them, I mean that I worked them. And you can fuck off if you think I didn’t earn every thin dime of the sixty-four thousands dollars that I eventually had directly deposited into my bank account. I then razed every single bit of evidence that I possibly could and went about my life, swearing off of ever interacting with that subsection of the country ever again.

To say that it happened over a short span of time is a bit of an understatement. The emails were pretty instant. I had to cancel and set up new email accounts for nearly an hour before I finally had one that was secure. And then the phone calls came. Each one was more angry than the next, to the point that it was impossible to block every single phone number that was incoming.

Now, I don’t know what they were expecting to happen, at first, that I would turn their money back over to them? The crowd-funding website that I used stipulated that every dollar given to the project was then the property of the crowd-funder. The money was mine by right, and I honestly thought that there wasn’t a court in the country that would convict me for ripping off people like this.

I honestly didn’t know how much bravado I had, or how fool-hardy I could act. This went on for days into my semi-retirement before the mail started to come in. That’s when I knew that this could have serious ramifications on my life. But, did I go to the police? No, I didn’t. Honestly, I thought that I was capable of self-protection, and that letters aren’t really as bad as it could get, I reasoned. Unfortunately, I was right.

It wasn’t even a week later that my car alarm went off in the middle of the night. I knew it was mine because of how piercing and high pitched it is. Believe me, if you heard this alarm from two miles away you would do whatever possible to turn it off. So, I went to get my keys, stepped out onto the landing of my apartment and got ready to press the button to turn it off when I saw the group of black hooded strangers clustered around my car. They all looked up at me as if they were a single being while swaying their arms to and fro. Each of them was armed with a blunt weapon.

I turned, ran to my door and turned all of the locks. After putting the chain in place, I grabbed my book case and leaned it up against the door. I was only just in time as they began to hammer at my door. None of them said anything, which made the entire thing even more terrifying than I thought possible. I then ran to my bathroom, closed the door and braced my legs against it so that I was pinned between it and my toilet. My hands were shaking so badly that I dropped my phone twice before I could dial in 911.

By the time that the police arrived, my front window was broken and the strangers were wandering around in my apartment. There was no way that they didn’t know where I was, and yet they didn’t do anything but walk around, from the sound of it. They had to break the door down, due to the bookshelf, and charged into the living room. There was a hushed conversation between one of the strangers and a police officer. It took a little less than a minute for the cop to get to the bathroom door.

He knocked and I called out in response, “Yes, officer, I’m in here.”

“Could you please step out here, son?” The officer said in a clear, authoritative voice.

“Did they leave? I called out, my voice quaking.

“Come out, or I’ll take the door off its hinges, your choice.” I wanted to vomit.

I got up and, with a shaky hand, grabbed the door knob, twisted and walked out into something that was worse than any nightmare I’ve had. There were four of the hooded figures, it turns out. They all had their masks off now, and were standing next to four police officers. Each of them then introduced themselves, by name. The hooded figures were the children of those cops.

What could I do but stare in wide-eyed horror. I knew that extremist groups had infiltrated police agencies and had been inside of them for years, but I never knew it could be this bad. I never wanted to believe that it could be. Not my town, not where I live. That, I thought, was impossible.

They then, in no uncertain terms, explained to me that I should hope to never need police protection ever again, because they were everywhere. In every police house, in every precinct, they were there and they all knew who I was. No matter where I went, I was on my own from that day forward.

What did I do? What could I do but sink down onto the floor as if I weighed a quarter of a ton and watched as they left my apartment, peaceably and calmly.

It’s been six months since then. I live on the other side of the country from where I grew up, and I live in fear that I’ll ever need a police officer. Every time one appears in my rear view mirror, I wonder what will happen, if anything. And every time they pass by.

I don’t know what to do, I’m at my wit’s ends at this point. It turns out that I accidentally picked a fight with the law, and the law won.

Friendly.

It was an ordinary day in June when Danny Nuell watched his ceiling fan spin fruitlessly. The heat of the month seemed inescapable and oppressive, even making the air feel capable of burning. All Danny could do in response was lay on top of his sheets, listening to Minor Threat in his underwear, wondering if a cold bath was in his future when his phone rang.

“Danny, give me one good reason why you shouldn’t come and see the Upper Class Brats tonight.” Came the voice on the other end. Joseph was on the other line, cutting straight to the good part as always.

“You know how my mom feels about going to punk shows, man.” Not only did she dislike how he came home covered in sweat and smelling like the cigarettes everyone smoked, but she also fretted that it made him an even bigger target of the police even though he looked like any other teenager on the street before or after.

“Your mom probably just wants some peace and quiet. Look, doors open at seven and if you aren’t there, then you aren’t there.” The line went dead and Danny was left looking for his pants.

Dressed in what he hoped was a respectable outfit of a black t-shirt, black jeans and work boots, Danny went out into the living to find his mother. She was asleep with a box fan next to her, a wet washcloth on her forehead and her shoes off, reclined completely in her arm chair. He felt bad about waking her, but knew that she really would be happy to have a quiet apartment for the night.

He cleared his throat, and gently asked for her. But when that didn’t work, he tapped her shoulder. “I heard you the first time, I was just hoping you’d give up and go back to your room.” She wearily sat up, still recovering from an early morning nursing shift. “Where are you going, and how much do you need?”

Danny fidgeted awkwardly, “Going to see the Lower Class Brats with Joe, and the door will be ten dollars.”

She sighed heavily and went to get her purse, “Danny, I mean it. You need to at least be trying to find a job if you aren’t going to go to school in the fall.” Danny opened his mouth to say something, feeling his heart lurch in sympathy, “Don’t say anything, just promise me that you’ll be hitting the streets tomorrow.” She held a twenty just out of reach from him.

“I promise, mom.” He said, and he meant it. His mom deserved more than she had, and he knew he had to start contributing in some way.

She handed him the bill and smiled kindly at her son. “Please be careful out there. I don’t want you getting snatched up on the way there or back, and don’t get hurt while you’re at the show.” She looked as if she might be seeing him for the last time, as she almost always did before going out.

He hugged her tight and kissed her cheek. “I’ll be careful, mom. I promise I will.” She ruffled his close-cropped hair and sent him on his way.

One of the only advantages afforded by living in a building without air conditioning, Danny thought to himself, is that you don’t have to adjust when stepping out into a hot day. It’s just a different kind of heat, such as the oppressive heat that pressed down on him as he began the walk towards the Factory. He felt that he could make the walk there with his eyes closed from all the shows that he’d attended in the last few months, and his mind wandered.

High school was rapidly becoming a distant memory and there were no experiences in it that really gave Danny what was referred to as a ‘direction’ in life. Tradition would demand that he consider the military, and he honestly did, but the recent invasion into Iraq made him rethink it every time the subject came up. Did he really want to die in the desert? Did he really want to kill people who hadn’t done him any personal wrong?

What other options were there? Who was he, at the end of the day? How could he say? He was just a young punk, and even that part of his identity was new. Fast food was a fast track to nowhere; his uncle Brandon had been working at McDonalds for five years before he even got promoted to team lead and didn’t know when he’d become assistant manager, let alone general manager. He’d never get into a college with his grades, and community college? He’d never be able to tell you what subject he found most worthy of his attention.

He stopped for a moment and looked around. The sun had been higher in the sky, or least that’s what he thought, only a moment ago. He didn’t recognize any of the streets around him, which didn’t seem to be even remotely possible since he’d lived in the area for all of his life. He began to walk down the, surprisingly empty, streets faster and noticed in an abstract way that the shadows seemed to be much colder than the area that surrounded him.

Danny felt his chest get tighter as he passed by a Denny’s that seemed to serve as a line of demarcation between the city and a suburb that he didn’t know even existed the day before. He scratched his head and looked around at the charming neighborhood that somehow existed in the middle of the city. There were picket fences and trees that jutted out from perfectly maintained lawns with the sun setting behind the towering surrounding buildings casting the small valley into deep shadows.

The mystery suburb was one thing, the strange shadows were another, but it was the quiet that really disturbed him the most, and caused him to run down the streets in a near panic. It was only when he took a sharp turn and nearly ran straight into a young woman that he began to get a grasp of his senses again. “Oh, Jesus. Finally another person.”

Danny was struck by the woman that stood in front of him. She had light skin and thick dreads that tumbled down her shoulders with multicolored thread strung through it. She had a warm smile and a Dead Kennedys shirt on, “Another person?” She asked with a quirked, and pierced, eyebrow.

Danny looked around and noticed that the streets were teeming with people once again, with plenty of traffic running through the roads as thousands were still struggling to make it back from work. He wiped a thin sheet of sweat from his forehead and looked back at the eerie neighborhood then back at her, “Uh…nevermind. Just took a wrong turn somewhere.” He said sheepishly, feeling a blush rise on his cheeks.

“You gotta be careful. Who knows what could come along and swipe you off the streets!” She said with a faux-sinister overtone that put Danny at ease. She fished a pack of Kool’s out of her tight jeans, lit it and offered Danny one, who refused it. “Where you off to?”

“Uh…the Factory? It’s on Lincoln and ninth?” He thought about offering up the band name, but he had a good feeling she’d have no idea who he was referring to.

“Going to see the Lower Class Brats?” She said with a smirk on her lips and a glint in her eye that Danny didn’t quite trust.

“Yeah! You know them?” When she held up two tickets, Danny felt like he could be knocked over by a feather.

They walked together to the Factory, making small talk and getting acquainted. Her name was Myra, she was nineteen and visiting from ‘out of town,’ the location of where that constituted, Danny didn’t press on her. She wasn’t really doing anything to speak of, just ‘laying low’ as she put it and keeping her mind clear, letting herself be ready for whatever came next. Danny felt himself admiring her point of view as they gravitated closer and closer to the show.

When the Factory came into view, Danny spoke up. “Who are you meeting here?”

“No one, apparently. My friend pulled out at the last moment. I was going to just scalp his ticket and go by myself.” She looked over at him conspiratorially, “You want it? Free of charge.”

Relieved that he wouldn’t have to spend his mom’s money, he smiled broadly and nodded before he dialed it back a little. “Sure! I mean…if that’s okay by you, of course.”

She laughed, which somehow disquieted Danny just a little bit, and handed him her spare ticket as they crossed the road onto the street that the Factory was on. Joe was waiting outside by with his arms crossed over his chest.

“Hey man, where have you been? It’s almost eight!”

Danny cast his eyes at the sky, distantly wondering how it was even possible for him to have not noticed how long it was taking them to arrive at the venue. “That’s…weird? I thought I left at half past five.” He chewed on the inside of his cheek as he continued to look up at the sky as if the solution to his question floated in the clouds somewhere.

“Dude, just…it’s okay. The warm up bands weren’t all that good anyway.”

“They never are.” Myra spoke up in her clear, strong voice. “You must be a friend of Danny’s.” She said as she strode up to Joe and confidently wrapped him up in a tight hug.”

Joe’s eyes went wide over her shoulder. “Well, aren’t you friendly.” He stated as she took a step back.

“Very friendly.” She said with a wink, and they all walked in together.

To the uninitiated, a punk show is little more than chaos. Hundreds of brightly colored youths struggling against each other, raised voices and barely skirted fights. The postured violence would be seen to be real and the ironic sneers and screams of condescension makes this enemy territory for many. The music, largely consisting of three chords and shouted, barely intelligible lyrics, would do the rest of the job, sending outsiders running for safety and solitude.

What the three most recent entries saw was something totally different. Hands reaching out to catch people that are knocked down, kind words to people who need them, who are struggling with their lives. They would see togetherness and brotherhood, a home for people who aren’t welcome anywhere else, often not welcome in their own houses. A place where they could be whoever they want to be, even for a little bit.

Danny was able to pretend that his problems didn’t exist as he moved urgently to the beat of the music, crowding and shoving the rest of the people in the pit. One moment he had seized another punk in a vice-like hug, another he was shouting lyrics along with someone else, their faces bare inches from the other. Nothing else existed as he joined hands with one person, then was helped to his feet by another. The invasion into Iraq was miles away, his impending job was just a rumor and his lack of options was the least important thing in the world.

All too soon, like every other escape from reality, the music was over and the band was clearing the way for the next opener. With two other bands to go before the Lower Class Brats took the stage, there was a near-stampede to the exit as some went to get water and others went to feed vices that weren’t available inside of the Factory. One such vice-seeker was Myra, who was shadowed by a very sweaty Danny, as she pulled a crushed pack of cigarettes from her pocket. Danny wondered where she was able to hide them in her pants, and nearly missed it when she held her pack out to him.

“No thanks, I don’t smoke.” He said in a friendly, but firm, tone of voice. “How are you able to dance when you’re breathing in that stuff?”

She lit her smoke and exhaled before facing Danny with a smirk. “You’d be surprised with what you can get used to.”

Danny shrugged and leaned against a wall to look out at the parking lot. As he took in the night scene around him, he noticed that every street light that he could see, as well as the lights inside of the surrounding buildings, was starting to flicker. “I guess the power grid is overloaded.”

Myra continued with her cigarette, as if she hadn’t heard him speak. “Nice weather for this time of year.”

Danny arched an eyebrow as he wiped off his forehead with the back of his hand, “Relative to what, the ninth circle of hell?”

Her lips curled into a wry smile as she stepped up to him, where he was only then able to notice that her eyes wouldn’t meet his, “Well, you know what they say. If you can’t stand the heat…”

“Whoa!” Came Joe’s voice as he casually walked up to them. He held his hands up as if to ward away offense. “Don’t mean to break up the Kodak moment, but the next band is coming on.”

“Go on without us, we’ll be right behind you.” Said Myra, as she looked two inches to the left side of Joe’s face.

Joe hesitated for a moment, “Okay, Danny?”

Danny, whose only thoughts were that a pretty girl wanted to hang out with him, merely smiled and nodded his head towards the door. “We’ll be cool out here, man.”

Joe shrugged and went back into the Factory, as Myra slumped against the wall that Danny was leaning against. A beat passed, and then another, as the music from inside picked up intensity.

“So…you go to school around here?” He asked helplessly.

“Closer than you think.” She said, turning to face him. “Say, you want to meet a friend of mine? Ian’s really cool, and I’m sure he’d love to meet you.”

Danny blinked a little, “But, the Lower Class Brats will be on in an hour.” He wouldn’t give voice to the concern that the electric grid may not be operating right.

“We’ll bring him with us. Don’t worry; I’m sure Ian would love to meet Joe as well!” Without waiting for Danny’s ascent, she began to walk in the direction she needed to go.

He struggled with indecision for a moment, unsure as to whether to rejoin Joe in the show, or to go with Myra. He could hear the second to last warm up act playing, and, assuring himself that he would be back soon, followed after her. “Where’s this Ian guy, anyway?”

“Denny’s. He’s about ten minutes away, I promise.” She was walking much faster than she appeared to be, like her feet didn’t completely touch the ground.

There was an awkward silence as Danny struggled to keep up with her, that was broken when one of the street lamps off in the distance burst with a shower of sparks and broken glass. Danny jumped backwards and put his hand over his heart. “Jesus!”

Myra turned to look at him, “If you’re afraid of the electric grid fucking up, you can go back.” She said dismissively, unimpressed by Danny’s yelp of fear.

“No no, I’m good. I just wasn’t expecting that is all.” He said quietly, rubbing the gooseflesh that erupted across his skin for reasons that he couldn’t name. “Where are you from?”

They crossed the street as Danny’s question was asked. They continued on before Danny tried again, only for her to cut him off at the beginning of his sentence. “It isn’t far now.”

He looked around helplessly, now no longer convinced that he was making the right decision as they began to walk into the disquieting neighborhood that he had accidentally walked through earlier in the evening. He looked for street name as they passed the sign, but when he didn’t see one, he glanced backwards and saw the world falling into darkness. His eyes went wide and he tapped Myra on the shoulder.

She looked back, nonplussed, and then turned to Danny, “Look. You wanna go back to the show, go back to the show. It isn’t a big deal.” He didn’t like the way she looked at him, as if he was small, less than she was.

He squared his shoulders though, bringing himself up a little more. “Is that the Denny’s over there?”

She nodded, simply turned around and began to walk in the direction of the building. “Yeah, Ian’s going to be so excited to meet you!”

As Danny got closer to the front door, the more he was aware of lights going off behind himself. But, if he just kept walking forward, just keeping his eyes on the diner, he wouldn’t have to pay attention to that. All he had to watch was Myra hold the door open to an inexplicably empty and quiet sales floor. A sales floor that was occupied by only one customer, in the furthest back booth.

Danny couldn’t keep his brave front up any longer. “I need to go. Now.” He said to Myra, turning back to face her. He felt his bravado disappear, though, as he saw a thick and fathomless darkness outside.

“You have all the time in the world to go back, Danny. Come now. Ian is very friendly.” She corralled him and walked him towards Ian.

Danny looked around frantically, trying to step away, trying not to look at the void where Ian’s face should be, trying not to acknowledge that lights inside of the restaurant were going off, trying to ignore the increasingly sharp nails pressing into his shoulders as Myra’s true form was revealed…

-End

Open.

I apologize if this isn’t the most coherent thing you’ve ever read, but events have occurred that make it difficult to be coherent in the first place. I know that what I saw couldn’t happen, but the crime reporting says different, although I disagree with the ‘why’ to their ‘what.’

Anyway, my name is Zach Tores. If you’ve heard of me, we’ve probably had a class together, because my poetry has never been published. Not anywhere. I don’t want anyone reading or repeating the embarrassing stuff I’ve written down and it’s all embarrassing. I read it and I just want to tear it up and forget that I even know how to write, but I digress.

How this guy even knew that I was a poet in the first place is beyond me.

So, I was at the coffee shop on the corner of Algoma and Main, right? I can never remember the name of the place even though I’d been there numerous times. I was waiting for my latte to be finished when this guy approached me. If you asked me to describe him even a minute after we’d met, I wouldn’t be able to. It’s like his face greased my brain so I couldn’t get a grip on him. He never gave me his name either.

He just asked if I was a poet, and instead of asking him how he knew that I was a poet, I just told him that I was. He told me about this exclusive poetry reading at some address I didn’t recognize in the least bit and for some reason I copied it down on my phone. I didn’t plan on reading anything, but some weird, exclusive poetry reading sounds right up my alley, you know?

It was days later, and I decided that I wasn’t going to go after all. My apartment was warm, Twin Peaks was on TV and besides, I couldn’t gather up the courage to face the public at the moment. I had to do my laundry, and that was the extent of what I was willing to do at the moment.

I had a routine to it, that I now regret more than anything. This was more to make sure that I’d get up and do it than anything else. I’d load my clothes into the washer and have a smoke as it went through. Then I’d have a smoke after I’d put all of my clean clothes away.

This worked really well until that day. I swear that my pack wasn’t empty when I went into the laundry room in the basement, but by the time I’d gone outside, it was. But then again, nothing else from that day makes sense and fretting over my empty cigarette box just feels like quibbling at this point.

Resigned, and not wanting to face the slow agony of nicotine withdrawal, I put my shoes on and went out into the world to get a pack of cigarettes. This is when things go wrong, in case you’re interested.

I got to the gas station in one piece, it was right where I left it and I recognized and exchanged pleasantries with the clerk before I ventured back out into the world, only to find that it was much darker than it was mere minutes ago. It was sunny when I went in and now there was cloud cover so thick and dark that the world appeared to have turned its lights out. I turned back around and the gas station was gone.

My hands were now shaking so much that the plastic wrap on my pack tumbled to the floor. If I didn’t need a smoke before, I certainly did now and I was going to have it. I lit up, turned back around and saw that I was in an entirely different part of town. How am I supposed to react to that? I honestly don’t know.

All I could do was put one foot in front of the other and attempt to walk back to my apartment so I could write the entire event off and try to force myself to forget it. I started to walk in the direction of my apartment, smoking my cigarette, but stopped after a minute or two. I turned to my right to look at the house I was standing next to. It was a white, one story that sat on top of a small hill. There was a large oak tree to the right and a driveway leading up to a garage on the left. It turned out that checking my directions was my second mistake, because, for as far as my eye could see, there was nothing but the exact same house, stretching to eternity.

My cigarette fell out of my gaping mouth. I ran to the front door of the house and pounded on it. I needed to use a phone. I needed the police or an ambulance or the FBI. I needed something, and I couldn’t just walk on a treadmill and hope that the unchanging would eventually change.

The front door opened. I opened my mouth to babble out what was happening, but the tall, stoic looking gentleman in front of me spoke over whatever nonsense I was going to try to spout.

“Mr. Tores, we’ve been expecting you.” He said and stepped aside to allow me in.

The house was sparsely decorated and had a railing almost exactly to my right that bordered a staircase leading down into the basement. These details passed in front of my eyes as oil over a puddle when I pleaded, ignoring that he knew my name somehow, “Please, I need to use your phone. I think I may have been drugged somehow because I don’t know how this happened.”

“Oh yes, everyone is indeed waiting for you down in the basement. If you’ll follow me.” He said with a moronic smile on his face and an untroubled tone to his voice.

“No, you don’t understand. I was just getting a pack of cigarettes when I somehow got to the other side of town.” I was frantic and growing worse by the second. I felt like throwing up and fainting and screaming hysterically all at once.

“Oh yes sir. We would be delighted if you would read your poetry to use. Just please follow me.” He turned and started to walk towards the railing and the stairs.

“I didn’t say anything about poetry, what is wrong with you?! What’s wrong with everythin-” I was interrupted by thunder that shook the house down to its foundations and a flash of lightning that illuminated the interior of the house entirely.

It was then that I accepted my fate. Everything was out of my control anyway, so I might as well go along with it. Agreeing that the entire thing was probably an acid flashback or an especially vivid dream, I followed the gentleman who knew my name and somehow knew of my secret hobby down into the basement.

In there were about thirty chairs, all but two of them full. I didn’t recognize anyone in there and was nonplussed to see them all facing towards a dimly lit stage with a microphone at the edge of it. I didn’t question why there was a stage in the basement of a house any more than I did the sudden storm now hammering the upstairs world, how I got in this position in the first place or anything else. I just took my seat and waited for this dream to finish the way all of my previous dreams did.

Time seemed to crawl to a complete stop until the man who told me of the reading in the first place strode up to the microphone. I didn’t know where he came from, especially since there was enough light that I could see every corner of the room with perfect clarity. Prior to just then, there was only thirty people in the room, now there were thirty-one.

“If you would all be quiet, we can start the show.” He said exasperatedly. I looked around and not a single person had so much as moved, let alone said anything. “Please, everyone please be calm.” He put out his hands like a Kindergarten teacher pleading with their charges.

Without any signal, he seemed to be satisfied. He leaned forward and spoke into the mic in a voice that sounded like a rusty door frame. “Zach Tores.” He then stepped away, out of my line of sight. I looked around at the room and felt my pockets, almost expecting to be suddenly nude in this room of strangers.

I had nothing on me and no desire whatsoever to go over to the microphone, and stayed rooted to the spot. This didn’t seem to matter though, as I stepped up to the microphone. At this point, nothing could shock me, so I just sat back in my seat and allowed this dream to continue.

I stood there at the mic, not moving in any way shape or form. Not swaying, not even blinking. Then, with some unseen cue, I started screeching. Not me in the chair, me on the stage. I opened my mouth wide and the sound issued forth like a flood. I put my hands to my ears, doubled over and tried to put my head between my knees. It was agony, and wouldn’t stop. I started to scream in pain, as it really started to hurt when finally it ended.

I straightened up and looked around at the rest of the crowd. None of them had moved in even the slightest way. They could be nailed to their seats for all I knew. Still in pain, and with the beginning of a headache to slowly sink into my consciousness, I looked back up at the stage.

There I still stood. My eyes were unfixed and seemingly looked at absolutely nothing. I watched me, and could feel my hands, my entire body shaking. I hadn’t prayed since I was a child and here I was, pleading with whatever could conceivably watching over me that this was a dream when he pulled out an x-acto knife. Somehow I knew what was about to happen. I tried to get up off my seat, but my knees refused to work. I tried to lift my feet and they were fixed to the ground. I tried to close my eyes, but they kept flying open again.

He clicked the knife out of its shell and the blade seemed to catch the light in a way that knives only did in fiction. Hot tears streamed down my cheeks as I raised my other hand and, with the x-acto knife, started to carve into my thumb.

I screamed in the most horrific pain I’d ever felt in my life as my nerves lit up like a Christmas tree. The me that stood on the stage didn’t say anything, didn’t even flinch as he pressed the knife even further into his thumb. I wanted to vomit, I wanted to pass out, I wanted to run, I wanted to die as the pain continued.

Blood poured over his hand and down his wrist and then onto the floor as he brought the blade around to the side of his thumb. He was cutting deep and I could feel the blade in my thumb, then in the side of my hand even though from all appearance I was totally unharmed.

And so this went on. Sweat and tears dripped off of my face and blood poured off the me on the stage as continued to cut as if with the intent to tear his entire flesh off to the bone. I couldn’t help but watch, as if an invisible force were preventing me from doing anything else. This seemed to go on for hours, with stage-me alternating hands somehow until his flesh was bifurcated along a solid line on both of his sides.

I couldn’t help but hope that it was finished as he finally finished the task.

The knife clattered to the floor and in the most horrific, disgusting sound that I’d ever heard, the flesh and cuts sloughed off to the floor revealing a gore-streaked skeleton standing stock still in front of the microphone, its eyes remaining in their socket as they now stared straight at me.

I could feel sensation returning to my body as he stared at me. I got up and I ran as fast as I could out of the house and down the street, not even noticing that water was falling down onto me in a solid sheet. I had no idea how long, how hard or how fast I was running. All I could concentrate on was the eyes. The horrible eyes.

They found me days later under an overpass.

The doctors assure me that one day, I’ll be able to get out. They hope very hard for me that they’ll somehow figure out what happened to me, why the sudden and severe psychotic break. I’m not holding my breath since, after all, I can never seem to remember the name or description of the doctor treating me.

Science.

First thing’s first, I suppose. My name is Marten Randall, and I’m not quite sure what you should call me; there’s a patent silliness and pretension behind words like ‘wizard’ or ‘magician.’ I do not wear peaked hats, nor do I pull rabbits out of hats. I’m even uncomfortable with calling what I do ‘magic,’ because there’s a certain connotation that goes along with that term, making it sound miraculous or unsystematic. Rather, call me a scientist in the proper sense of the word. After all, my studies are certainly systematic and if I’m not peering into the mysteries of the natural world, no one else is.

Of course, scientists like myself don’t just emerge from the ether, rather, I was raised into a proud family tradition of exploring what my parents called ‘the tear.’ The current prevailing theory is that what laypeople would call ‘magic’ is merely the manipulation of rents into the fabric of the universe where different realities overlap with each other. Just as with geologic phenomena, where rock layers can become plastic due to heat and pressure such is the same with ‘magic.’ These rents or tears are what are commonly ley-lines which are unobservable through traditional methods, and have to be sought out through specially made glasses and measuring tools. Once on these ley-lines, using ‘sensitive’ parts of traditional reality, and with the right arrangement of signs and figures, we can bypass the traditional laws of physics and manipulate reality in ways that we see fit.

So, don’t think of magic wands or top hats, think of studious, careful and rigorous examination that has all the vigor of astronomy but with, let’s say…less traditional methods. By way of example and explanation, I want to explain my first experiment.

The family’s line of work was well known to me, and wasn’t something I was shielded from. However, the basement was strictly off-limits until my tenth birthday, a day that I doubt it’s possible to ever forget.

It was an unseasonably cold October morning. I woke up early because my parents had scheduled the day off months in advance with my school, and realized when I got out of bed that I had forgotten to feed Harry, my pet rabbit, at the time I was supposed to. In a panic, I ran downstairs, remembering my parents solemn warnings that, “If you want a pet, it’s your responsibility and yours alone.” That was two years ago, and I hadn’t forgotten to feed Harry a single time, and changed his bedding every day. So, you can imagine my near panic when I got to his cage and saw that it was empty.

I cried out for my parents, only to bring my dad walking calmly into my room with Harry in his arms. Even though he usually didn’t like to be held, he sat quite comfortably in my dad’s arms, his eyes open but his breathing steady and calm. Dad stroked his pristine white fur as gentle as could be as he approached me. “Looking for someone?”

I reached out for Harry, who was my only confidant due to being quite unpopular at school. Even at that age, I knew that his cognition wasn’t nearly on the level of ours, and that he didn’t have the affection for me that I had for him, but that didn’t help my distress at all. “Come downstairs, Marten. Your mother and I wish to talk to you.”

“I’m sorry I forgot to feed him this morning! I didn’t mean to sleep in!” Tears were streaming down my face, terrified that my best friend was going to be taken away from me. Dad saw the look on my face and his was crossed with a look of sorrow. He patted my back and herded me down into the living room. This is when I realized that they were both outfitted in their labcoats and scrubs, which wasn’t unusual since they both worked from home, but they tended to work late at night when the boundaries between realities is at its weakest.

“Please don’t take Harry away from me!” I cried at my mom as I ran into her arms.

She soothed and stroked my back, telling me over and over that everything was okay, that everything would be okay. After my tears had stopped, she got down on my level, and wiped away the residue that they left on my cheeks. She kissed my forehead and smiled a sad smile, “Today is a very special day, Marten. Today is the day that you’ll start helping your father and I in the lab.”

I caught my breath, let it out slowly and looked up at her, my mother who always had a hug, kiss and smile for me, who would never tell me that things would be okay if that was a lie. “So why does dad have Harry?”

She stood up and put her hand out for me, “Come down to the lab with me, dear heart.”

Their lab was what you would expect from any other science lab: spotless, stainless steel and glassware filled with various liquids. Refrigerators, freezers and other storage lined every wall but one, which was brickwork. There were chunks of raw chalk on a table at the center of the wall, along with some diagrams. I was shepherded towards the table, and mom clasped my shoulders from behind, directing my attention at the blank brick wall. “You know how hard mom and dad’s work is, and that it takes a lot out of us, right?” I nodded my ascent, “And you know that we would never pressure you into following in our footsteps, and that your happiness is the most important thing in the world to your father and I?”

“Marten, you can always turn back, but in order to really get you up to speed and at our level when you reach our age, we need to begin your training this year.” This was said by my father as he brought some large, black nails and a hammer over to the table with his free hand, holding Harry in the crook of his elbow with the other. “Neither of us would ever lie to you, and I’m being very serious when I say that this is the hardest part to our work.”

The emotions that were roiling through my young mind were varied and complicated, far beyond what a boy of my age should’ve been feeling. I was excited and scared to begin my family’s work, I was happy that my parents were being so gentle and considerate with me, but beyond those was my concern and confusion for my poor rabbit. “So, why is Harry down here?”

“Marten, you know how we talked about ghosts when you were younger? What did we tell you?” Now it was dad’s turn to get onto his haunches and meet my eyes.

“You said that consciousness creates ripples in reality, and that ripples can affect the rest of the world and create long lasting impressions in it.” I repeated, from heart.

“And that these ripples interact with each other and create bonds between different consciousnesses?” He was walking me through the process, making sure that I knew every part of the experiment before it began. All I could do was nod, still far away from understanding what, precisely, was happening. “Our work depends on those ripples, because that’s what’s used to manipulate the ley-lines that rest under our home. So, when those ripples act with each other, we can then tear them apart which will send such a shock through the ley-line that we can manipulate it in specific ways. Do you understand?”

Horror spread across my face. I clasped my hands over my face, as if I could ward off what they wanted me to do, but when I withdrew my hands, they were still there.

“This is part of what makes our work so difficult, dear heart. There are other ways to manipulate the lines, but the most effective, the most potent way, is to create a strong emotional bond with…” my mom’s face creased in consternation and her eyes reflected heart break. “With a sacrifice.” She let those words sink into my mind as I struggled at speech. “Once again, Marty, you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. This is going to be incredibly hard, and it will hurt you very deeply. Your father and I will support you, no matter what you do, and if you want to take Harry back upstairs, give him his breakfast and just enjoy your day off, then that would be okay with us, I promise.” The looks on their faces confirmed that she wasn’t just saying this.

I looked from my parents to Harry, my best friend, my only friend. His wide, innocent eyes and his soft fur. I wanted to cry, but I knew I had to be strong. That if I wasn’t strong, this wouldn’t go the way it needed to. In the end, even though the very thought of doing it still hurts me, I nodded and reached for Harry. “What’s the experiment?”

Dad handed Harry to me while mom brought the rest of the equipment to the table. “First, you need to pin Harry’s paws to the wall with iron nails, then you cut him from the throat to the rectum with a silver blade and then use silver pins to hold his chest open. The elements are very important, as they amplify the waves you create through the action of killing Harry. After that, you’ll see for yourself.”

It took a half an hour, all told, but it felt like a small age as I inflicted the worst pain I could imagine on my friend. I could barely see straight from the tears that I shed, and my hands shook with each action. Gratefully, my parents helped with the nails, and they held and soothed me when it got to be too much. I insisted on pressing on, knowing that this was my duty, that following in the family tradition was important to me and that, once the first nail went in, there was no turning back.

After I stuck the last pin into his still body, blood coating everything that I’ve touched and Harry’s white fur stained a livid red, the air thrummed like a string was plucked. Where there was a gory, awful hole in Harry’s chest, I could now see a star field that stretched into infinity. Dad placed his hand on my shoulder and said in a gentle voice, “The hard part is over. Now, all you do is reach into his chest with both hands and keep pushing in.”

I did as I was asked, choking down vomit as I did. But instead of feeling rabbit organs, and instead of touching the back of his insides, I reached farther and farther into the cosmos until I felt something grab me. I looked back at my parents in a panic, but they stood back by about twenty feet. Dad’s arm was around mom’s shoulder. “You’re going to be okay, Marty. I promise.”

All at once, I was pulled through Harry’s body, and emerged into the impossible. I gazed out as the universe stretched on beyond me. I looked backwards, and stumbled backwards. If my heart was pounding fast before, now it felt like it was going to explode. I wanted to scream, I wanted to run, but all I could do was trip over my feet and gaze up at a creature that defies explanation. It gazed at me dispassionately with its numerous eyes and charged directly at me with a speed that would have seemed impossible yesterday.

It seized me with its appendages and gasped in pain as tentacle cups lined with needles dug into my arms. Its horrible face, asymmetrical and multifacted like a diamond drew closer to me and I felt the world that I used to know die around me. I trembled as the collected knowledge of every member of my family was forced into my mind while the thing in front of me worked its many jaws, drool dripping over its thousands of teeth. I began to seize up as the information overload increased, but it didn’t let go.

I could see the Earth as it was crossed with hundreds of lines, all glowing bright green. I could see every inhabited planet throughout the universe, countless diagrams and the ways that all of the elements work with consciousness. All of this and far more, stretching and distorting my young mind beyond anything that should be possible. As the information load increased in speed and the horror of it all reached its apex, I couldn’t help but lose consciousness.

When I awoke, my parents bent over me and looked down at my still body as I met their gaze from the floor. My hair had turned completely white, and I wasn’t able to speak for a week, but the ordeal was over. I looked back at the brick wall, and saw that Harry had vanished and the brickwork looked as if nothing had happened to it. My parents gathered me up and told me that they were very proud of me while they carried me back to bed. I lay down and fell asleep, trusting that the terror was over, but it was actually just beginning.

Sacrament.

There used to be a low-rent apartment building down the street from the library. It’s just a vacant foundation now, and I’m sure you’ve wondered why nothing’s ever been done with the land when you’ve walked by it, or why radios don’t hold a signal on the streets around it. I know, there’s been enough talk about, but you can never tell when someone listens to the gossip at the bar or if they leave people to talk.

Anyway, I’m drifting far afield of the story. Point is, that foundation used to be a five story apartment building. Now, you have to keep this under your hat, for reasons you’ll understand, because people in the area don’t like to talk about this, okay? It was built back in the twenties, and from the local papers, it wasn’t a bad place to live. It was mostly for the loggers and the mill workers and their families, back in those days. Really diverse set of people, and a lot of mixing which wasn’t warmly received by the locals.

I can tell you’re getting ready to object, and that’s something I can understand. No one ever wants to think that their community is anything other than a sterling example for all of humanity, but you go back far enough and there’s a common lineage of bastard deeds. Fact is, though the people were safe and happy inside the tower, they were not very welcome outside of it, which was a situation that, let’s say, vacillated as years went by.

Years passed, and the people in the tower gained a little bit of traction, at least with the town council. They were able to conduct street fairs outside their building, and even pitch a few tents to make some money on the side with arts and crafts. Out of towners would travel for miles just to come to these street fairs and to purchase these exotic and fascinating talismans and art pieces. There were even a few historians that visited, sampled their wares and brought their findings back to whatever university they worked at. Said the pieces were some of the most fascinating items found in years, with no clear predecessors or kin. This attracted attention and acclaim.

More people visited, and business for the tower dwellers got better and better. They were able to move out of tents and into brick and mortar storefronts. Though there wasn’t much patronage from locals, there were more than enough tourist dollars to justify their existence. They gained more seats on the council and their influence grew. There was a tentative peace for awhile, where the tower dwellers weren’t shunned or in fear, where the general population was grateful for what they brought in.

That was until they bought the church on Brandy and Faulkner. Now, I know that building has been vacant and falling into decrepitude for years, but there’s a reason why no one’s ever tried to recover or move into it. And that’s the Church of the Chasm.

People back in the fifties weren’t the most accepting of any era in American history. This was doubly true when it came to religion. Now, the practitioners were well within their rights, and they had enough influence in the town council to get the permits passed and filed away, but the locals were not going to pretend to be happy about a heretic church in the area.

If you’ll allow me to speak at liberty, the people were not wrong in the estimation of this church. Their masses met at three in the morning, and were lit by candles, hundreds of them, blazing all around the dark building. The practitioners wore black robes and spoke a strange language that no one was able to identify. This went for their holy books as well; untranslatable, in their entirety.

They didn’t discourage anyone from witnessing their rites, but anyone who did would have left feeling disquieted, but ambivalent. The services were strange in meaningful ways, and they were almost aggressively opaque, but they had done nothing wrong. Not that this helped as the locals steadily began to take control back from the dwellers.

Slowly, bit by bit, the town turned frostily hostile to the dwellers. They lost council seat after council seat, losing all of their influence on the government in less than five local elections. Statutes and bills were passed and enacted that squeezed the dwellers back into their tower. Their shops were shuttered and zoning conflict after zoning conflict arose within the Church of the Chasm, until that had to be abandoned too.

After that, the dwellers weren’t seen in the area as much. They drove in and out of the building to go to work, but they were never seen anywhere else. Not even at the local markets. Soon, even these sojourns stopped as rumor came into town that the dwellers had purchased the building from the original owner. Not long after this rumor circulated, the doors into the tower were boarded off from the inside, leaving no way to come in or out. And that’s when things became even weirder.

The people in the surrounding neighborhood reported a disturbing chanting coming from the tower, early in the mornings. No one was ever able to really make out what was being said, or produce a recording, but enough individual reports came in to make that a credible claim. The interior of the building was dark and motionless during the day, but lit by candles at night, casting an eerie, flickering glow around it, like an aura.

We all did our best to ignore this, because what else could we do? Without any evidence of criminal activity, the police couldn’t do anything, as much as they wanted to. Being creepy as hell isn’t a crime, after all. Needless to say, property values were plummeting around the tower, and people began to complain about blinding headaches. This wasn’t just local to the tower, it was all over the town. And then, the candles went out.

When the first body showed up, no one thought much of it. A gawker had come in from out of town, carried his bad health with him and died of a heart attack while behind the wheel. But then more started to be found all over town. What do you mean ‘what do you mean?’ Bodies were appearing where there previously weren’t any bodies. None of them had identification on them, and none of them appeared on missing persons reports. They were fully dressed and they were all fully dead of natural causes.

We all knew who was to blame for this, for the headaches and we all knew what we must do. We elected a representative, a big guy name of Benedict Francis, and went to the building en masse, one bleak December morning. Benny, he strode up to the door and knocked on it heavily. Silence. You could hear the world breathing as we all waited for a response. He knocked again, and one of the boards from inside was pulled away and we were able to look inside the lobby for the first time in months. At least, we would’ve if the inside wasn’t as black as the inside of a paint can.

Their representative strode out of this blackness, in a black robe, and carrying a black book with a black hood covering his face. Benny walked over to the dwellers’ representative, and puffed out his chest. He got ready to speak when the dweller looked up at him. Benny shrank back and staggered into the crowd as we all got a look at his, her…its face.

Its skin was the color of dirty chalk, and its mouth hanged open, allowing thick, black tar to seep out of its distended mouth. Its eyes were coals of flame in a black void where its cheek bones and eye sockets ought to be. It gazed mournfully at all of us, spoke a few words in its unintelligible language, and strode back into the building, erect and purposeful. The entrance was boarded back up, and we stared at it for what felt like hours, now fully at a loss for what to do.

We decided that action had to be taken, but what could we do? We needed to get to somewhere that we could talk, somewhere away from the tower. Where we could breathe safely. It was decided that the library would fulfill all of these needs, especially since it was the only public building that was currently accessible.

We made our way to the library straight from the tower, but it seemed like every step in that direction was harder than the last, like our own muscles were fighting against us. There was something going on that no one understood, and that no one was equipped to understand, and we had to get away from the cause of it as quickly as we could.

Benny was the first one to notice, and he pointed as he told us that the sun was setting at one in the afternoon. But the stars weren’t coming out, and there was no moon in the sky. At this, we all pushed harder and were eventually able to make it to the library. Inside, lights were flickering and sound was dampened such that we nearly had to yell at the person directly next to us in order to be heard. We were becoming frantic, but we knew that something final had to be done. The yells soon became murmurs, until the sinking realization crept in, that if it was as difficult as it was to get to the library from the tower, then what on Earth could any of them hope to achieve without the necessary implements with them?

As this went on, no one noticed that Benny had peeled off from the rest of us, and jingling his car keys as he went. Outside, in the deathly stillness and quiet, there resounded the growl and roar of Benny’s hulking monstrosity of a car and the dull purr of its idling engine. We all struggled our way outside as fast as we could, and saw Benny pointed directly at the tower. His high beams were on, and he was revving the engine with a purposeful look on his face.

I made it up to his window and asked him what he was doing, but he looked straight ahead and refused to acknowledge that I was even there. All at once, he let out the brakes and roared at the tower. He barreled down the empty road like a rocket, cutting through the thick darkness that was swallowing our town.

The sound he made when he struck the outer wall was louder than it had any right or reason to be, but Benny got the job done. Though he was a few hundred feet away, we all could see the gash that he put in the side of the tower. No one could see that Benny was bent over the wheel of his car with the steering column piercing his chest. Or that the hit had punctured the gas line, creating a small puddle that was growing and coming closer to a small patch of grass that caught fire in the initial collision.

We all swam through the molasses that was growing worse by the second, but froze when we saw the car light up, embedded in the tower as it was. The insides burned for a solid five minutes and the world was lit up by the fireball that was Benny’s car. We all shaded our eyes as the flames rose higher from the car and caught on the insides of the building. The whole thing burned for hours, and never did we see a single shape fleeing from inside, nor did we hear any screams or cries of pain or anguish. Just a steadily burning building that we thought we’d never get rid of.

By and by, the air became less thick, and the pitch black sky became the gloomy December clouds that they previously were. The tower had burnt down to the ground, and not a single one of us was sad to see it go. Benny was posthumously made a hero, though there were rumblings that he didn’t ram into the building of his own volition, but that he was enacting some deeper part of the dweller’s design.

So, what was in there, you may ask? I’m going to disappoint you here and admit that the multiple investigations didn’t turn anything up. No personal effects, no furniture. No clothes and no human remains. Nothing. As if the building were vacant when it burned down. That sealed it for the entire town. This incident was not to be talked about, or even acknowledged. As far as any of the old-timers are concerned, there was no Church of the Chasm, or low-rent housing or weirdos that had street fairs.

What about the historians and such from outside? A strange footnote and an inexplicable little story. There’s thousands of them all over the place, and nothing that the outsiders saw made them think that there was anything unnatural going on. Just a hitherto unknown language, writing system and religion. Nothing else.

What happened to the people inside? Now, that’s a good question, and not one that us old-timers like to think about. My own theory is that there wasn’t anything inside of the building to burn. The reason why it looked so black on the inside is because there wasn’t anything inside of there. Nothing. No thing. The stuff rocks dream about, if you catch my meaning.

Now, and if everything before this doesn’t sound crazy, this definitely will and I know it: I don’t think any of them burned because the blackness was a tunnel into another place. That’s why they were slowing us down; they were in the process of leaving and didn’t want us to interrupt them. They were successful, and none of their people died in transit.

So, remember that on especially dark nights, when you pull your collar up around your neck, or when you feel like an alley is a little darker than it ought to be. The world is a far darker, far more strange place than you can imagine.

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.

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.