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.

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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.