#25 – How It Feels

This is Part Six of a longer narrative. Read Part Five here, or start at the beginning.

This is how it feels to be Stephanie Norwood.

The door slams shut at the top of the stairs. The sound reverberates through the cold stone. You feel it in your fingertips. It triggers a reaction in your chest like a shot of adrenaline, a dose of fear so intense that your heart races, speeding along as if it wishes to escape – it will escape, if you don’t let it. You have to find a way out before it does. The sounds of the beast, the enemy you’ve hunted, pacing upstairs. 

You scratch at the door, driving furrows down the soft wood with your bare nails, which break and splinter with your efforts. Blood trails down the back of your fingers, collecting in the cuticles where it will later dry and look like old paint – if there is a later. It does nothing to improve your position. You hammer your fists against the back of the door, howling and screaming, anger and fear swirling in your gorge to form a primal keening, a sound unlike any you’ve ever heard. It exhausts you. You travel down the stairs, now intimate with the dark, and lean against the cool stone-and-earth walls. The rise and fall of your chest marking the depth of your impotency. 

There is no knowledge that could have prepared you for this. The academy has little to offer to students who find themselves trapped in a monster’s lair. You laugh; a naked, foreign sound in that dim place. The absurdity of the situation belies the fact that your life is close to ending. You wonder what your committee might have to say about this and realize your life up to this point has been a waste.

You rise and wander back through the dark. The knowledge that the Bric-a-Brac Man is upstairs (doing what?) makes the journey easier. You find yourself back in the chamber with the small sad bundles. Seeing them awakens something in you. Something you thought dead, trapped by the dark. It’s a small flame, and it’s fighting, snapping at the air. You think of the children the monster stole, the lives it stole, and pledge not to fail them. Not to fail Katie. You will find your way out of here so that you can kill the monster.
Because monsters deserve to die.

So begins the long process of searching the dark. Though your eyes have adjusted somewhat, the gloom has only changed from a black-black to a blue-black, hardly enough to do anything by. You think you can make out shapes, shadows made form, but nothing seems certain. You run your hands over the floor, over the walls. You find little to interest you. Some baubles and knick-knacks. A few small house-hold items that suggest this place might once have been different. Bones. Too many bones. Then you find the door.

It is short and wooden, no higher than your knee. No wonder you missed it. You reach down and push on it, and it swings back, revealing a room beyond. You crawl down on your hands and knees and once you pass inside you hit your head against the earthen roof. You feel small threads of root tendrils tracing your ears. The ceiling is low. The image of a veal crate leaps into your mind without asking and the purpose of this place becomes clear. It seems to emanate with malevolence. But you’ve already checked everything else and so you must carry on, running your fingers along the wall, into the grooves where the bricks meet and the mortar lies. 

Then you find it. Your fingers almost don’t recognize it at first, so raw and red are they, but they scrabble and pull and soon you feel the lip of the brick against their pads. Somebody has worked away at the ancient stone. You pull and feel it shift. Emboldened, you pull harder, and it shifts a little more. You rip off your belt with a snapping sound and flip it so the buckle faces out of your fingers like some atavistic and vestigial claw and you scratch away at the stone, feeling small shavings dancing down the rear of your hand. You labour like this for longer than you can reasonably track, the air growing swampy and humid around you, until at last the brick begins to shift at your very touch. You reach your fingers behind and pull and it pops free, landing on the earth with a dull thud. A chill of air beyond fills you with hope and you pledge to fight on, scrabbling away at the next brick. And the next. And the next. 

When at last the bricks have been pulled back from the wall of that cell, a tunnel remains. You cannot see it in the dark but you know it must be there for the air that comes from it is fresh and cool compared to the heat of your prison. The only thing worse than the thought of going into that tunnel is the thought of not doing so.

You take a deep breath, and head on in.


This is how it feels to be Stephanie Norwood.

You scrabble on your stomach through the bowels of the earth. The walls hug your shoulders on either side, the earthen floor soft and vaguely damp beneath you. The ceiling is low and brushes against your head as you push yourself forward into the dark, discarding the questions that come to your mind, the what-ifs that threaten to loosen your bladder and drive you to cower like a cornered rabbit. You have no room to turn around. It’s forward or die.

Forward or die. 

The stone walls shift to soil as you descend deeper into the earth. Strange mosses and other nameless lichens tent against your hands as you crawl forward, bowing softly to your pressure. Your fingers brush against worms and other skittering things. All of it is but noise to you; pointless distractions. There is life and there is death. Everything encompassed within the first category is superior to that in the latter. You tell yourself this in the hope that you might come to believe it, even as the tunnel narrows and you’re forced to crawl through with your breath held, hoping that when the time comes to exhale, you’ll be able. 

The soil beneath your fingers begins to transition from solid hardpack to something soft and damp. You don’t know how far down you’ve come but evidently you’ve reached the water table. Memories of elementary science classes years ago rise and then scatter in your mind. Why would you need those now? They change nothing. It’s forward or die.

Forward or die.

The soil begins to cling to your hands as you crawl. The cool squelchiness of it is almost soothing to your tattered fingertips. The bloody traces of your work are clotted and staunched with mud. You are now crawling through the mud, the gentle sucking of the earth replaced with something more reluctant to let go. The mud is thick and heavy here and you feel for the first time actual water beginning to slosh around your limbs. You realize now how thirsty you are and you lower your head but an inch and begin to drink greedily of the still, stagnant water. It’s cold and tastes of dirt and is filled with silt that gets caught in your teeth and lingers on your tongue and yet it’s the best water you’ve ever tasted. Once you’ve had your fill, you carry on, hoping that the tunnel will soon rise.

And then you reach the pool.

You can’t see it, but its depth becomes clear when you reach your hand forward to pull yourself along and find it totally submerged, drowned in cold water that makes you gasp at its touch. It sloshes softly in that slim space. You reach out blindly in the dark for its surface and find only the roof of the tunnel, sodden and unyielding. The way forward is completely underwater. You don’t know how far it goes. The thought of turning around occurs to you but briefly before you remember that there is no turning around, there is only crawling backwards to a different end. So you make your choice.

Forward or die.

You pull yourself along with a claw-like hand, grabbing a clump of the pool’s muddy bottom to reel yourself in. You do this twice more and then there’s no more room to breathe, you take a great gasp, the last gasp you might ever take, and then you’re submerged. All sensation is occluded. There is only the water and the tunnel. The air in your lungs stale, useless. All you can do is move forward. Something creeping in, colder and emptier than the dark. A place you can’t come back from. All you can do is move forward, your lungs screaming for succour, your mind beginning to race, panicking, wondering when the water might break and whether your mind might break first and then you’re out, you’re breathing, you take a great gasp as your face breaches the surface and even the sick dank air of that forgotten place is the freshest you’ve ever known. 

You pull yourself free of the murk. The tunnel begins to rise, and as you climb, you feel the breath of root-tips and plants against your face. Emboldened by the knowledge that the surface is near, you speed up, the air beginning to grow sweeter around you. A faint light ahead. Not a will-o-the-wisp but something real. Hope blooms within you and you pull yourself forward until finally your face breaks the surface and the sweet breath of the night is the kindest kiss you’ve ever felt. 

With a few last surges of effort, you pull yourself free. The tunnel entrance is barely visible behind you, half-hidden behind a bush-ensconcelled knoll. Gravestones are visible around you in the faint moonlight. You realize where you are and the knowledge that you’re free of that pit resonates in your mind, collapsing in on itself until at last you’re brought to your knees, where you vomit and cry and scream the fact of your survival to the waiting night.


This is how it feels to be Stephanie Norwood.

The media circus is unlike anything you’ve experienced. You are branded as the survivor of a serial killer, one who escaped a basement of bodies through sheer determination and will. As if it’s the fault of the dead that they didn’t. You are asked to be on television and the radio. You meet with politicians and represent survivors whenever they are discussed, though no one actually listens to you when you try to identify the failures of policing that led to this juncture.

Your own work is immediately passed, and you are granted your doctorship without much further work. A revised version of your dissertation including a chapter about your search for the Bric-a-Brac Man is immediately optioned for publication, as well as film rights. Money is no longer an object.

What little vindication you feel is muffled by the knowledge that the Bric-a-Brac Man is still out there, and by the fact that the media elides the paranatural elements of the Bric-a-Brac Man’s killings. He is portrayed as cannibalistic, but all mention of the flesh-sacs in the basement and the prolonged timeline of murders is hidden. You cannot rest, for there is no justice or closure. The scars along your fingertips throb in the rain and remind you of your failure. 

Then one day you arrive home to find the postcard.

It’s tucked below the sisal WELCOME mat, and you almost miss it at first. Then you bend and pick it up, and even in this simple action, you know who it’s from. The face of the postcard is the Dalí painting with the melting clocks, only the clocks have been replaced with faces. His face. The face you don’t know but you do, because you’ve seen it in your dreams. The one with the floating smile. You turn the card over and see a few words, scrawled in a creek of jagged ink. 

so hungry im tasting blood whose blood i dont know yet but ive got a good idea yes so ill be seein ya soon yes i will yes I will yes

#24 – Horror Vacui

“How much longer now?”

“You asked me that an hour ago.”

“Well, I’m bored.”

“Go be bored somewhere else. There’s a whole ship to explore.”

Lex rolled her eyes. Sal hated being spoken to while he was flying, even if the ship was functionally on autopilot. Anytime he was in that seat, which was little more than battered metal and a thin, deflated cushion, he developed a God complex. She didn’t really get it, but then again, she was an engineer. It didn’t matter what she thought, so long as the ship kept working. 

“I notice you’re still here,” said Sal, turning in the pilot’s chair. A short beard, gristle really, had begun to grow around his significant jowls. Razor-burn spotted his neck, and his eyes were sullen and low, as if he’d just come off a bender. 

“Just hangin’ with my pal, Sal.”

Sal snorted. “You really want to look out at all that?” One hand waved across the view-screen. The fathomless black firmament, barely speckled with a few points of light, was all there was to see. It unnerved Lex. She’d been flying with the Gunnison for a little more than eight months and had spent a lot of time looking out of windows. Short-haul ships weren’t equipped with cryopods. Something about frequent cry-cycles damaged the cells, so they were stuck at sub-FTL speeds, bouncing between the supra-light buoys marking the trade-lanes. 

“No,” answered Lex, “not really. It’s kinda fuckin’ boring. Why’s it so empty, anyway? Don’t we usually see more stars?”

Sal shrugged. “Charting new trade routes takes you to some weird places. Maybe a black hole? We’re pretty far out. Lots could be here we don’t know about. Ask Polina. She’s the physicist. She might be able to tell you what’s what.”

“But she wouldn’t do it with the same gusto as you, Sal.”

“Fuck off.”

“Love you, too.”

“Get goin’, now. Go play cards with Briggs or Moray or somebody. Leave me alone.”

“Just so long as you promise not to tell me why you’re so keen on being alone.”

“Remember when I told you to fuck off?”

Lex laughed, waved once, then left the bridge. The doors slid shut behind her. Sal was finally alone. He looked once over his shoulder, then checked the comm-link. “You still there?”

“Yes,” came the reply. “Do you think she knew I was listening?” A faint accent indicated the speaker had grown up someplace metropolitan. Maybe Prosperity, or one of the stations around it. Sal made a mental note to ask Polina about it sometime.

“No,” he said. “She didn’t have a clue. Just coincidence she noticed the same thing about the missing stars.”

“Do you think the others will notice?” asked Polina.

“Not likely. They spend more time drinking and playing games than they do looking out the viewports. She’s the only one with half a brain.”

“Well, let’s hope she uses the correct half and keeps this to herself. I don’t want the crew to panic.”

“Well, I gotta tell Sharp. But after him, that’s it.”

“It better be.”

“Hey Polina?”

“Yeah?”

“Do you think we need to panic?”

There was silence for a long moment. Too long. Then the reply: “Not yet.”

“Roger,” said Sal, closing the link.


The noise of the mess pressed itself upon Lex as soon as she entered; over half the crew was here now, and those three other people made it feel like three times that. The mess was the biggest room on the ship, but that didn’t mean much aboard the Gunnison. It also happened to be the ugliest. The walls were steel-grey and looked like little more than sheet metal hung vertically, covered only by strips of seldom-used netting moored to the wall at the top and bottom like the masts of an ancient ship. Lex liked how they looked, even if they were kind of pointless; though the ship was hardly modern, it had been retrofitted with an artificial-gravity unit that kept the floors where they belonged.

Across the mess, Moray was stirring something in a pan. It made a sizzling sound that promised a better meal than Lex knew Moray to be capable of delivering. The big man waved at her as she entered and gestured to whatever was in the pan. Lex shook her head, then turned to the table where Sharp, the captain, and Briggs, the other engineer, sat. They had scattered cards across the table and were looking at one another intently. Lex grabbed a seat at the end of the table and watched them for a long moment where neither moved.

After about a minute, she interrupted: “Are you guys actually playing this game, or is it just a staring contest? What kind of money do you have on the line?” 

If Sharp heard her, he showed no sign of having done so. Lex turned to Briggs, who shrugged. “Don’t worry about him, Lex. Staring at the cards isn’t gonna make ‘em any better. He knows he’s cooked.”

“Does he? He seems pretty convinced he has a shot, here.”
“That’s the overconfidence of command. Once you put a guy in charge, he thinks he’s hot shit, needs to be humbled. This is me doing him a favour, really.”

“Shut up, Briggs, it’s been like four months,” said Sharp. His eyes never moved from the cards. “Fuck. Okay. Call.”

“Show ‘em.”

Sharp laid the cards across the corrugated metal table. There was no confidence in his face. He didn’t even bother taunting his opponent. A single vein bulged in his forehead. “Just show ‘em, man. Don’t mess around. Marlene’s gonna be pissed enough at me for gambling when I get home.”

Lex watched Briggs. The younger man was looking at Sharp, mouth agape. “I’m honestly shocked. Really, I am.” He held his cards in his fist, not even looking at them.

“Can you get this over with? Sal called me to the bridge like five minutes ago. Says it’s important.”

“And this isn’t? I was just going to say that I’m shocked you were bold enough to make the call. I honestly thought you’d fold.”

“Briggs. Stop being a dick. Just show me your cards.” Lex could hear the edge in Sharp’s tone. She’d worked with Briggs a lot longer than she’d worked with Sharp, who’d recently been re-assigned by the Company. Everything she’d heard about the man suggested that he was a perfectly affable – if somewhat bookish – captain. She’d also heard a series of stories about the lagoon-side casinos on Jollity that suggested he wasn’t as clean-cut as he seemed. She made a mental note to tell Briggs – remind him, really, considering he was the one who’d found that information on the captain – to maybe find a different opponent.

Briggs sighed and laid the cards across the table. Lex snorted. Briggs had nothing.

YES!” cried Sharp, leaping to his feet. A barely-restrained smile crossed his face. “I didn’t think I had a chance, and I swore I wouldn’t be cocky if I won, but godDAMN does it feel good!”

“Good game, cap’n,” said Briggs, extending a fist. Sharp bumped it. “You got one more in you? Or do you gotta go?”

Sharp considered. “I should probably head. Maybe later.” He grinned. “I know your tell now, man. You’re gonna be in for it when I get back.”

Briggs opened his arms wide in a kind of who-me stance. “See you then, boss.”

Lex leaned toward him. “So why’d you let him win?”

Briggs shrugged. “Guy looked stressed about something. His comm kept going off.” He grinned. “I also got to see what he looks like when he’s got a shit hand. Not sure I needed the preview to figure it out.”

“Truly, you are a noble so–”

Without warning, the Gunnison began to slow. Then it stopped. Everything after was a blur. Lex later recalled it only in snapshots, seconds of memory preserved only for the horrors they held.

One. The ship stops. Plates, bowls, cutlery, glasses, liquids, food, the hot oil in the pan, the cards on the table, the loose metal nut that Briggs had dropped behind the bulkhead two months prior – it all flies into the opposite wall with a horrific metal crunching sound that makes Lex think she’s died.

Two. She watches Moray die. Unmoored to anything, he collides with the wall faster than her eye can follow. His body floats away in a crumpled heap, globules of blood already beginning to gather in the air, the gravity unit clearly damaged by the calamity. She and Briggs luck out – their heavy workpants and the short distance between thigh and metal save them from the same fate. Mostly. Lex hears a sound she can never unhear, then looks down at Briggs’s lap to see a white shock of bone extruding from his thigh. He’s screaming. She’s only just realized that.

Three. A klaxon is sounding through the Gunnison. The lights in the mess have vanished, replaced by dull yellow running lights like submerged fireflies. A tinny voice is speaking over the comms. Sharp’s. It takes a few seconds for the words to coalesce into anything that carry meaning. Siren so loud. They need to go to the bridge. Now. 

Four. Lex pushes herself out of the seat. She’s floating but a few inches over the table. Her legs scream at her. They might not be broken, but they’re certainly bruised. She helps Briggs out of his seat, trying not to jostle his leg, trying not to even look at it. She wraps his arm over her shoulder, then uses the lip of the table to launch herself toward the exit.


Lex didn’t realize how bad it was until they arrived on the bridge. 

The soft whirr of the automatic door announced their arrival. Somebody must have hit a switch, because the alarm stopped as soon as she entered. She heard a short gasp, presumably at the sight of Briggs. Polina. The astrophysicist was strapped into the co-pilot’s chair, next to the ashen-faced Sal, whose hands were dancing anxiously on the console. Floating nearby was Sharp. Small bubbles of red rose from his head, but he seemed alert and gave the crew a sad wave as they entered. He was about to push off the wall and toward the arriving party when Sal unstrapped himself instead. The big man lifted the semi-conscious Briggs from Lex’s shoulders and set him into the pilot’s chair. Polina quickly rushed forward, filling the open wound with a medi-foam. Enough to keep him steady. At least for now.

“Moray?” asked Sharp, breaking the silence.

Lex shook her head. “Was standing when it happened.”

“Jesus.”

“What the hell happened? An asteroid?”

“No,” said Sal, shaking his head. “An asteroid would’ve come up on the sensors, even out here where there’s no light to bounce off of it. Also, we’d still be moving. But we’re not.” His eyes danced over to Polina’s, and he raised his eyebrows. Questioning.

Polina nodded, and Sal continued.

“Pol and I have been monitoring some unusual activity in this sector.”

“What kind of activity?” asked Sharp irritably.

“I was just getting to th–”

Polina spoke up. “–Don’t worry, Sal. I can take it from here.” She looked first to Sharp, then around the cramped room. “We detected an unusual phenomenon as we passed out of the last cluster. We’re still a few dozen parsecs from the nearest trade route, with no known objects in-between.”

“What was the phenomenon?” asked Sharp.

“We noticed that the stars were going out.” Polina’s voice was cold as she replied. It took a moment for Lex to realize it wasn’t the steely nerves of the scientist. Polina was afraid.  

Sharp pushed himself into an upright position, or at least as close as he could get in zero-g. “What do you mean, going out?” Anger had begun to creep into his voice.

“As in, we couldn’t see them anymore,” said Sal.
“Right,” replied Sharp, “but did they actually ‘go out’ as in ‘go nova,’ or is it something else?”

“Something else,” answered Polina hurriedly, “but we’re not totally sure what just yet. We have some theories.”

“Like?”

“We think they’re being blocked. Obscured, that is.”

“By what? A rogue planet?”

“No,” said Polina sadly. “That would definitely have shown up on our sensors. Planets are composed of elements we know and can identify, even in the dark. This was all dark.”

“What the fuck?”

“It gets worse, too,” continued Polina. “As far as we can tell – and this is limited, based on scans that we can run – it’s not anything we’ve ever seen. It’s like there’s some strand of something, and we’re caught in it.”

“Well, let’s get out. Sal, throw the ship in reverse.”
“Can’t do it, boss. Front thrusters are buried in whatever this shit is. No way to pull ourselves out. I tried. We’re trapped.”

Nobody said anything then. The only sound was the low and rhythmic breathing of Briggs in his chair. Then their world came apart. A great shudder ran through the Gunnison like a death rattle, then the jarring, violent shriek of tearing metal. The sirens began to go off again, shining yellow across the bridge, and the bridge door’s locked shut. The whole ship shook, throwing everybody save the seatbelted Briggs into the nearest wall, though fortunately not as quickly as before. A hiss of air could be heard, indicating that the vacuum seals elsewhere on the ship had been breached. Then there was silence, and everything went still.

“What. The fuck. Was that?” asked Sharp.

Lex floated to the console, her hair cloudy around her head. She typed something quickly.. Next to her, Briggs had drifted again into unconsciousness. A tremor rolled through the ship as she worked, and the rest of the crew shifted nervously. 

“Fast as you can, please,” said Sharp.

 Lex wanted to call him out for being a dick, but decided that wouldn’t help anything. At least not yet. She swore under her breath. “That can’t be,” she muttered.

“What can’t be?” asked Sharp.

“This – all of this.” She turned to him. “I don’t really know how to say this. There’s no good way.”

“Just spit it out. We can worry about gilding it in our reports.”

“Something’s attacking us.”

Another long silence. Then Polina spoke, too scared to moderate her tone. “What, like an alien?”

“Not exactly. And I don’t want to leap to too many conclusions. The Confederacy hasn’t found any complex life in known space, but we know it’s out there. It makes sense that we’d run into it eventually. But this – whatever it is – is peeling apart the hull. The mess is totally exposed to the vacuum right now. I think it detected something there. Food, maybe. Warmth.”

“Why hasn’t it attacked us yet, then?” asked Sal.

Lex hesitated. “Because there’s more blood at the end of the ship.”

Sal let out a long whistle. “Shit.”

“This is fascinating,” said Polina. “A life-form totally undetectable by any of our instruments–”

“Definitely,” said Sharp, in a tone that suggested he didn’t care in the slightest. “But it’s not my concern right now. My concern is getting what remains of my crew back into home space.”

“I told you,” began Sal “I don’t have a way to–”

“I think I do.” Lex. She finished a few last seconds of furious typing, then stepped back from the console. “It’s risky, it’s stupid, but I think it’s all we got.”

“Well?” asked Sharp. “What is it?”

“We blow the Gunnison’s reactor.”

“Wha–”

“Just a small detonation. Controlled. One cell per second. Enough so that they propel one another instead of combining. If we trigger the ejection command on the bridge at the exact right time, the module will detach from the ship. Propel us away, back towards the Cygnus route. Or at least I hope. The inertia might not be enough, and we’ll have to survive on emergency rations. But it’s the difference between dying later or dying now, when whatever the hell’s out there decides to come back.” Lex’s voice was shaking as she finished. She wasn’t the talker, at least not to big groups. She had no idea where this had come from. 

“It’s a stupid plan,” said Sal slowly, “but it’s also the only one we’ve got.”

Polina laughed. It sounded false in that small space. It might’ve been. “Agreed.”

“Cap, I’m gonna need the override codes to blow the reactor,” said Sal.

Sharp’s face had gone white, either from loss of blood or the fear of what came next. But he floated over to Sal and began to punch something in.

“Wait!” cried Lex. 

“What?” asked Sharp.

“I forgot – I can’t believe I forgot. But we can’t do it on the console. It has to be manual.”

There was a long silence as the import of this fell on the crew. Then Sal said what everybody was thinking. “Lex, that’s through the mess. It’s all vacuum.”

“I’ll do an EVA. There’s suits in the bulkhead.”

Sharp shook his head. “If you’re setting the sequence manually, it’s still a one way trip. There’s gotta be another way.”

“There is no other way.” Everybody turned to the sound of the voice. It was weak, and strained, but it was Briggs. His face was practically grey, but his eyes blazed as he spoke. “I’m going with you, Lex. You need another engineer. We don’t know what’s happening out there. We need to stack the deck as much as we can.”

Lex’s eyes met her friend’s and thought of a million reasons to say no. Her lips parted in a grim smile. “Guess we’d better suit up.”


Inside her EVA suit, Lex took a deep breath and tried not to think of how little material separated her from endless nothingness. It was not easy to dismiss this thought from her mind, especially when the only distraction was the sound of her own breath echoing inside her helmet. Sharp had asked her to update them on their progress over the comms as they went, but Polina had piped up to suggest that, in the absence of any knowledge about whatever had attacked the Gunnison, perhaps all radio communication should be kept to a minimum. Their suits’ running lights had also had tape hastily applied over them, just in case the visible spectrum made them just as vulnerable.

These considerations did not provide any additional comfort.

Lex and Briggs floated inside the hallway just outside of the ravaged mess. The ship’s airlock seals had been activated automatically as the mess had been attacked. Sal had sealed the opposite end of the hall. When they gave the signal – just a quick on/off of the radio – he would open the mess door, and they’d float through in the dark, across to the opposite end, where a floor panel would provide an access ladder, allowing them to reach the reactor.

Lex counted about six hundred ways she could die in the next five minutes. She pushed them from her mind and looked over at Briggs. His face had a sickly, jaundiced look. Lex didn’t know how much of that was the poor light thrown by the runners or the wound. Another thing not to think about. She took a deep breath, then flicked the radio.

The door opened, soundless in the vacuum. Lex gestured to Briggs, and they floated through.

It took a moment for Lex to orient herself as she floated into the mess. While the fundamental structure of the room was still there, the entire roof and part of one wall were missing. Only a few lights were left on the wall to her left, scattering faint light in a thin halo like the last embers of a doomed campfire. A few stars could be spotted, speckled across the cosmos above her, but they disappeared abruptly when she looked too far to the right.

After that, there was nothing. She couldn’t call it an abyss, because that suggested some measure of depth of volume that indicated that there was structure or space to it. This was nothingness, pure and simple. As if a child had peeled back the wallpaper of the universe to reveal the howling black emptiness beyond. 

It terrified her, but she tried not to show it as she took Briggs’s hand and used the frame of the door to launch herself across the room, careful not to apply enough inertia that her landing might hurt. 

Or worse, that it might be noticed.

For a few brief, paralyzing seconds that felt like years, she passed in front of the expanse, trying not to look, not being able to do anything but look. She closed her hand tighter around Briggs’s and felt him squeeze back. Then they hit the far wall, more heavily than she hoped but not as hard as she’d feared. She found the console that opened the maintenance corridor, then pressed the entry code. It slid open soundlessly.

She gestured for Briggs to enter, then followed him. The door closed behind her.


“Well, that was the scariest shit I’ve ever seen,” said Lex. She’d taken her helmet off and tucked it behind the netting on the wall in the reactor’s room. Briggs had taken his helmet off. His breath was coming in short gasps, but his eyes were alert. They looked as scared as Lex felt.

“That wasn’t right,” he said. “Felt like we weren’t meant to see it or something. It was like my brain didn’t even know what to do, you know? I’m trying to talk about it now and I can’t. Like all my words’ve been stolen.”

“I hear you, partner. Let’s just get this shit over with.”

Together they rigged up the detonation sequence. It was relatively simple from an engineering perspective. The Confederation had mandated self-destruct sequences on all vessels – commercial, military, or personal – since the Internecine Conflicts seventy years prior. All captains were obliged to scuttle a ship rather than let it fall into enemy hands, lest reverse-engineering allow a lower-caste world to elevate itself. 

The primary failsafe against misuse was that it required a specific set of codes, as well as manual detonation. Lex and Briggs each knew this, and once the sequence was timed, there was nothing else left to say.

“I need to do this,” said Briggs.

“Don’t be stupid. It was my idea.”

Briggs laughed. “What does that matter? I’m not doing so good, in case you hadn’t noticed. Don’t waste your life.”

“I wasn’t asking.” Lex floated close to him. “I think I could win a fight against the guy with the busted leg.”

“Now who’s being stupid?” Briggs laughed, a cold sound without mirth. Then, without warning, his hand shot out and grabbed a loose wrench. In the next second, he slammed it into the front of his helmet. A spiderweb of cracks spread across it. He held the wrench in front of its face. “I don’t want you to get hurt, and this shit will fly everywhere if I break it. Which I will if you don’t go. And your helmet won’t fit my suit, so don’t even think of trying to be a hero.”

“Fuck you,” said Lex. “Don’t put this on my conscience.”

“You heard Pol say how far out we are. Go. Get out of here. Tell the Confederation what happened so they can stay the fuck away from here.”

Lex looked at Briggs for a long moment. Each considered the other. Calculating. Then Lex relaxed her shoulders and nodded. She floated over to her helmet and put it on. She turned to Briggs and tried to think of something to say, but nothing seemed quite right. So she simply raised a hand, then left that place, never to return.


Lex was barely settled back on the bridge when the detonation began. Sal sat at the controls, watching the readings with an uncharacteristic fierceness. Everyone else was silent. Thinking. Praying. Whatever people did when they retreated inside themselves.

It began as a series of tremors. Then there was a violent shaking sensation, and a sense of lightness as the bridge module separated from the rest of the Gunnison. A flare bloomed in the night, growing hotter and redder, propelling the survivors away from the site of the wreck.

The light from the dying ship had already begun to fade when Sal finally exhaled and opened the viewscreen for all to see. The fading glow lit up the emptiness, revealing the wall of black that extended beyond the top of their view. No stars could be seen past this structure, which was unmoved and seemingly undamaged by the violence at its feet. 

Then something moved, a thin tendril of black against the dying ship. This glimpse at the indescribable sent a thrill of terror and sublime awe through Lex. For a moment again, she was a primitive on a long-dead world, looking at an unchanging and unknowable sky. 

Then she was back, and they were hurtling through the dark.

Hurtling towards home.

#23 – Peephole

To anyone reading this, I have one last warning. Just in case my plan doesn’t work.

Don’t use the peephole in your apartment door. Just don’t do it.

I learned this the hard way.

My place was small, but well-situated. It was a building built into the side of a hill overlooking a park by the river. The forest had been cut down and replaced with new trees planted in more convenient spots. They had been surrounded by a concrete parking lot, isolating them to little islands of green amidst the black-and-yellow. I parked my car every day next to a young ash tree, then walked inside through a lobby lined with seldom-used plush couches and walls of glass. Coffee-table books about such esoteric subjects as the depiction of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in modern art or drawings of the human hand were scattered across the table, dusty and unused, present only to give the appearance of life but somehow responsible for undoing that same illusion.

I rode the elevator to the tenth floor and turned right. My door was at the end of the hall, situated perpendicular to the others. It wasn’t the penthouse, but it was an end suite, with balconies on all sides. My oasis. I opened the door and locked it behind me. I threw my bag onto the kitchen island, situated to my left. Beyond it was an open-concept dining-and-living area. The river sparkled in the distance. Red stripes, kayaks, cut across it. I watched the boats for a moment. I felt a strange and furtive feeling in this act of benign voyeurism. It made me wonder how often people watched me without my knowledge.

This apartment had been designed for childless young professionals or golden-yeared retirees who still walked without assistance. I was a childless young professional, but only one. Not that there was anything wrong with that. I preferred my solitude. It gave me more time to think, more time to pursue the dreams I wanted to pursue, without anyone saying anything to the contrary. Besides, I worked long, irregular hours, and it wouldn’t be very fair to anybody to expect them to put up with it. The black bags under my eyes might not suit the condo’s marketing material, but I paid my bills and lived a quiet life. I loved my home.

Well, until the pandemic hit. We shifted to a work-from-home model and suddenly everything changed. I was in my apartment all the time. I explored online grocery shopping as a means of limiting contacts with others, which was even easier than I expected. I found myself in a position where I almost never left my home — even once restrictions had relaxed. My company, unlike many, realized that the lack of overhead required to maintain an office would only be a boon towards year-end valuations. They shifted all employees to a permanent work-from-home model.

Great, right? Who wouldn’t want to do all work from home, especially one as nice as mine?

Normally, I’d agree. But my isolation wasn’t worth it.

It began late at night. When my commute was a total of sixteen steps, I wasn’t worried about sleeping in. I’d been deep in a YouTube rabbit-hole, learning about the alignment of the Pyramids of Giza with Orion’s belt, when I heard a knock on my door.

I didn’t even recognize it for what it was, at first. I thought somebody on the floor below me had maybe bumped a wall or something. Saying it now, that seems ludicrous, but it was two in the morning and I was more tired than I realized.

Then a second knock came, and all my fatigue fled, replaced instead by a cold adrenaline. My apartment was dark, lit only by computer-light. A faint yellow glow came from the streetlights beyond the windows and far below. The sky was dull and black. Inside, a single pinprick of light shone through from the small peephole inset at eye-level in the door. Something wavered on the other side, momentarily blocking it out. Then it was back. Then gone again.

I crept to the door, carefully raising and lowering my feet, almost cartoonish in my approach, so as to avoid the knocker hearing my approach.

WHAM! WHAM! WHAM!

The three hard knocks almost pulled a cry from my throat, dying in my mouth as I leapt to stop it.

When I managed to regain control, I leaned forward to the door, pressing my face against the peephole. Behind me, the video on my computer continued to play, flashing a panoply of colours across the room.

I could see the length of the hall through the peephole. There was an apartment on the other end, as well as two others opposite the stairwells at the west and east ends of the building. The elevator bank claimed the rest of the space. As far as I knew, those other apartments were empty. My trips from my condo door to the garbage chute hadn’t ever been interrupted by a neighbour, and I couldn’t recall seeing anyone before that.

It didn’t matter. The hall was empty. Whoever it was had done some kind of knock-and-dash game, perhaps jealous of those with a higher station in life. I checked the lock and then turned off the computer. The fear had left my body totally empty, and I fell into bed without even brushing my teeth.

The light on my phone blinked 2:16 in cold digital numbers.

WHAM! WHAM! WHAM!

My eyes shot open, feeling as if they’d only just closed. I checked my phone and the numbers now showed me 2:58. Fear was swallowed by anger. I laid there in bed, bracing myself for another round of knocks. I considered calling the police, but figured they wouldn’t come or the asshole knocking on my door would be gone by the time they arrived.

Quiet returned. My breathing began to steady again. How long had it been since the last set of knocks? Even checking my phone seemed somehow a provocation. I closed my eyes and tried to fall asleep again.

It was then that I heard the rattling. Somebody was trying to get in. Heart racing, I jumped out of bed, pulling on a faded pair of sweats. I stepped out of my bedroom. The knob shook violently and something was slamming against the door, doing everything it could to break in. I threw caution to the wind, rushing to the door.

The noise suddenly stopped. I realized I was holding my breath. I exhaled.

I pressed my ear to the door. All I heard was a vague bruit, a collection of noises too indistinct to parse apart. Time seemed to slow. I reminded myself of where I was and what I was doing. Front hall in the early morning, curled in the corner to make sure the door held. A shining porthole of light above my head.

I knew I had to look. Wouldn’t you look?

I stood up, using the wall to help me stand. Slowly and carefully, I pulled myself over to the peephole. It struck me then that there was a strange vulnerability to this act. All of human instinct screams at us not to isolate our eyes. A gory scene from a horror movie, maybe one of the Saw movies, flashed across my brain.

The hallway beyond was empty.

I think this was the moment when the first frayed thread of sanity finally snapped. The second came immediately afterward, when a face rose into the frame from below. An involuntary gasp stole its way from my throat. The face on the other side of the door couldn’t even truly be called a face. Instead, eyes dotted the skin’s canvas, erupting out of any spare section that could be found. They blinked and stared independently of one another. Brown and blue and green and everything in-between. Some were bright and clear, while others were wrinkled and clouded. Long eyelashes, epicanthic folds, freckles; any features an eye might carry were represented on this thing’s face. The only part of its face unmarked by an eye was distinguished by a strange and fleshy proboscis which floated half-limp like a deflated balloon caught in the wind.

Then the eyes all snapped to the peephole.

They saw me. They SAW me. The proboscis leapt out, quicker than the eye could follow, glomming onto the peephole’s other end. I braced my arms against the door as if doing a push-up, but found I couldn’t move. I heard the sharp tinkling sound of glass breaking. The peephole’s light was blotted out. I pushed even harder against the door, shaking, my shoulders screaming for relief, but wasn’t able to move. Another crack of glass, then a shock of pain that made my legs water as the shards were pushed into me.

Then I felt something else probe against my eye, and all went black.


Now here I am. I don’t know if the sheets I’ve tied together will be long enough to reach the ground.
They might not even be long enough to reach the treetops. It’s hard for me to tell. My depth-perception isn’t what it used to be. Not since I woke up, slumped against the back of the door. The screaming gulf in my face, incessant, unending. I don’t know how bad it is. I haven’t looked in a mirror yet. I can do that after I get out.

I think the sheets will be long enough. Hopefully at least enough for me to jump the rest of the way.
The risk is worth it. Anything is better than looking through that peephole. Because if I did, I might see my own eye looking back.

#22 – The Tree

I found it one day at the park. It grew on a hill just by the riverbank, right near where the grasses began to grow lush and tall. It was early morning and the sun was obstructed in part by the leaves of other trees, creating a dappled pattern of light across the rugged surface of the bark. The air was chill and damp and the grass was dewy as I approached the tree, soaking my sandaled feet.

But I didn’t care. I had never seen anything like this before. And here it was, in the heart of the city. I stole glances around me. Did others know? Should they know?

No. This was mine. I had never seen another tree like this. Its sheer size made me think it was an oak, but a single forlorn branch jutting out from its body dangled a willow-leaf trail. I put it out of my mind. I wasn’t exactly an arborist. Is that what they call people who know things about trees? I don’t know. That doesn’t feel like it’s common knowledge. There hasn’t ever really been a reason for me to know about trees.

Until now. I felt a strange humming in my ears when I looked at it. The bark was so beautiful. Have you ever looked at a tree up close? Truly looked, I mean. There’s so much detail in the grooves and ridges of it. Like petrified elephant skin. I wondered if trees considered their bark to be like a fingerprint. Perhaps it was a means of identification among the treefolk, especially on dark nights where the moon is hidden and clouds have stolen the sky. A way for trees to know each other, since they can’t speak.

If only they could.

The most beautiful thing about the tree were the growths along its body. Great bulging tumours had pushed their way out of the tree and hung in goiterlike clumps on its side. Some spots were comparatively light, while others were half again as wide as me. These growths had a mottled appearance to them, all pitted and gnarled like the surface of some distant moon. There were but a few places where actual virgin bark remained. I ran my fingers first on one of these places, then over the face of a lump. There was a distinct warmth to it that had not existed elsewhere. It was comforting in an abstractly uterine sense.

My knees were wet. When had I kneeled before the tree? I didn’t remember, but it didn’t seem to matter, either. So long as I was there. I knew vaguely that the world around me had grown grey and shadowed and I thought perhaps that clouds bearing rain had come, but no part of me sought to leave. I was enthralled, desperate to see everything this tree had to show me.

I bent closer now, my face mere inches away from one of the growths. I could see now that it wasn’t a random pattern at all, but rather something carefully defined, almost artful.

Closer.

Could it be? The mass on the side of the tree regarded me with a glorious anguish. Of course! No wonder it had captured me so. I tore my eyes away from the tree with immense sorrow, but only for a moment; I longed to see the others.

Tears trickled down my face. They were all there. Faces embedded in the bark. Souls liberated from flesh-and-bone prisons. I saw before me immortality, visages captured in their moment of ascension, contorted and joyous in a sublime rictus. How could I join? What must I do? Tears flowed freely from my eyes as I beseeched the tree, wishing, hoping, begging.

I leaned forward and pressed my face to the bark.

#21 – The Stairs

This is Part Five of a longer narrative. To read the previous entry, click here. To start from the beginning, click here.

1

In the end, it always came down to a house.

The woman stood alone on the street. The streetlights spun golden halos behind her, but nothing could push back the dark emanating from the house. A low rumble in the distance. The highway? Thunder? Something else entirely? No way to tell. A caul of clouds had crept across the sky, muffling the stars. The black around her thick and cold, even the air itself heavy and damp. Expectant. The woman who stood alone on the street took one last look around her, then began the walk up to the house.

Stephanie had already broken one of her rules for this by coming at night. Every amateur ghost-hunter with a night-vision setting on their camera was proud to break into old hospitals or apartment blocs then act as if they’d accomplished something miraculous by catching an artifact of light on the recording. As if ghosts cared about what time of day it was. As if they cared about anything at all. But the academy didn’t understand that, nor did the public. If she wanted to ever tell this story, she needed to do so professionally, not by falling into the traps so carefully laid-out for her by the charlatans. The nighttime visit had had been necessary; this was the closest she’d come in years, and she wouldn’t waste that chance. She couldn’t risk the cops getting called on her for poking around an old house. She promised herself that she’d do the rest the right way. Her way.

What might happen if she were caught? A part of her had almost considered it, just to see how the situation would proceed. She’d tried to research the address, but couldn’t find any record of its construction in city records. Moreover, there was no sign the people in the neighbourhood had ever considered the house. True, the house itself was not particularly remarkable; as an off-white two-storey home turned faintly yellow with time, constructed in a style some thirty years out of date, it failed to stand out among the busier homes on the street for anything more than having an overgrown, weedy lawn. Suburban development had passed through this section of Kingston years prior, and now the residents were focused on renovations and property revaluations. Stephanie wondered if the comparative lack of development was due to a heritage designation — maybe, she considered, the owner simply wished to sit on a museum piece — but could find no evidence that this had ever existed. In fact, she could find no zoning information for the house at all. From all appearances, it was a forgotten artifact of a different city.

When Stephanie reached the front porch, she stopped. A couple of cracked concrete steps sat half-sunk and led up to a squat plateau. A wilted plant crept out from the crevices. Nothing stood on the porch to distract from the flat, unmarked door. A single thumb-sized hook poked out from the wooden awning over the short patio and wept rusty water in the damp night. Stephanie regarded this for a moment, somehow discomfited by this, the first sign of habitation she’d seen in this place. She looked over her shoulder, back at the night. The short distance from the porch to the street seemed somehow lengthened, as if the walkway had unrolled itself, a chameleonic asphalt tongue. Anticipation and fear swelled inside her. This part never made the stories, she reflected. She promised herself that the only lie she’d ever tell was that she wasn’t afraid.

She watched as her hand floated up to the knob. Couldn’t think about it. Couldn’t try to stop it. The brass was dull with time and weather, but unmarred by actual use. Her hand gripped it. Turned. It was locked. Of course it was locked. She hadn’t actually expected it to be open, had she? She stepped back and down from the porch. She took quick glances up and down the street to confirm it was still empty, then began to peer into the windows. They were slightly above eye-level and so she had to step on her tip-toes to see inside. The first was blocked by some thin curtain, preventing her from seeing anything more than faint shapes in the dark. The second, around the side of the house, proved more fruitful; part of the curtain here had been torn away, revealing the room beyond. It had evidently been some kind of sitting-room, judging from the furniture arrayed within. The shape of a sofa and armchair could be seen underneath great tarpaulin sheets like the kind movers used. There was a rug rolled up and leaning on the wall behind it. A single clock with a different songbird at each hour mark waited to be set.

Stephanie considered the next steps. She had all the proof she needed that the house wasn’t occupied, and yet the next part gave her pause. She knew it was her only way forward — the police certainly weren’t going to do anything, and she didn’t have any solid proof that the Bric-a-Brac Man had stayed here while stalking Jeffrey King. If she tried anything by the proper authorities, the best case scenario was that she lost her lead. The worst-case scenario involved an asylum.

She returned to the front lawn, eyes scanning the overgrown grass. Annoyingly, the lawn was remarkably free of detritus, despite the lack of maintenance, but she eventually found a rounded rock roughly the size of a tennis ball. A strange thrill grew inside of her, pushing out the fear. She realized it was more than just a window. The rock in her hand felt heavy with portent. Years of dogged pursuit had led to this. A heady rush filled her and she curled her fingers around the rock and wound back her arm.

It was then she realized that the front door had opened and now stood ajar. A vertical black line welcomed her.

The rock fell from Stephanie’s fingers. She walked up the stairs and pushed the door wide before being swallowed by the darkness beyond.

2

Motes of dust danced in thin beams of streetlight. The door shut behind Stephanie and a silence unlike anything she’d ever heard fell over the place. The foyer itself was cramped and cold, but as she stepped into the sitting-room adjacent, she noticed a strange humidity dappling on her skin that reminded her of a time she’d been sick while visiting relatives in Florida.

The feeling did not pass as she explored deeper into the house. She passed through the heavy shapes in the sitting-room and on to the kitchen, where the regular black-and-white of the linoleum told her more about the house than she’d ever gotten from walking around the perimeter. Drawers hung open half-tacked and emptied of anything worthwhile; a matchbook reading SAVE NOW BUY TODAY over a laminated graphic of an ancient Mazda shouted at her from its shadowed corner. Her hands found it and clutched it, figuring that any physical evidence from this place could be useful in some capacity.

She peered out the kitchen window to the spot in the backyard when picketed fence turned into gnarled and overgrown hedge. Beyond it was a trampoline. Old ivy rust-trails curled around the trampoline’s masts. Grass grew long up against its feet and watching it Stephanie found herself
falling

into a memory. She was back in a kitchen, not this grimy dark nightlit kitchen but rather one of gleaming browns, an earthy place with adobe walls and outside the sun was shining hot and bright in that extra energetic way that seems to slow down time itself. A girl sat across from her and she had an Eggo waffle in her right hand and blueberries lay on the plate underneath it, floes on a sea of syrup. She saw Stephanie and she smiled at her and Stephanie smiled back and then the world outside spun, day to night to day to night to day to night, two seasons long, until the world was dark and blue in that cold southern way. They sat around a Christmas tree and the night sat next to them patient, it was time and Stephanie didn’t know it, how could she know it? If she had known she could have said something maybe even done something and of course that wasn’t possible but it didn’t matter because no matter what she thought of

Katie was still dead. Stephanie was back in that quiet kitchen. She pulled herself from the window and walked round through the sitting room back to the foyer where the staircase climbed upstairs. Stephanie considered this option for a long moment before she realized something and returned around to the opposite side of this staircase, set between the kitchen and the dining room, to see another door. She pulled and opened it and another set of stairs fell away before her.

3

The staircase managed to combine all of the most frightening configurations of staircases together. First, it opened up with a steep and narrow view of the decline into the earth, a yawning black space that swallowed the light. The stairs were set not with wood, but rather had been carved into granite steps and inset to the earth such that they curved slightly and were angled irregularly as one descended. The ceiling was slightly too low, and the whole space rang with sounds of water dripping that echoed and bounced in that too-small space.

The staircase creaked under her weight as she took the first step. Only a faint filter of light from somewhere outside was able to creep through the hallway and down through this door to a thin line along the wall carved in blue-grey. Stephanie’s face passed through it but briefly as she descended and for a moment she looked to all the world like the girl who’d woken up Christmas morning excited to spend the day with her sister, the happiest she’d ever been and could ever hope to be. Then the light passed and the world swept back to the place where time had brought it, and she was a scared scholar, pressing her way downward into a stony dark. It took her too long to reach the bottom but at last her footsteps scratched against the stoop and she stepped forward to the next step and found that there wasn’t one — she’d arrived.

4

There was a hallway under the house. Stephanie thought about this for a moment and how many houses she’d been to that had hallways in their basement and she realized then that something about the thought of a hallway under a house was strangely discomfiting to her, and so standing there in a black so inviolately bleak and still she found herself struck then with the first true creeping sense of fear. The basement was warmer still than the main level of the house had been and Stephanie found her flashlight at last and an arc of light split out from it, not so much illuminating the dark as pushing it aside. Stephanie scanned the walls with the light as she advanced deeper into the basement where even the stone-and-earth walls began to degrade and turn more into packed hardsoil where the roof began to climb in and roots spun out varicose from the walls and at last she came to a door under the house where all the heat seemed to be held. She placed her hand on the door and felt a pallid warmth underneath her fingers. They crawled down to the latch and released the door.

It swung open and inwards into a space womblike and old, a place that stunk of a faint musk as if something dead had recently been removed. Fibrous streamers drew themselves half-taut across the ceiling of that place, gathering around a bulbous pink-and-ochre pod. The light fell across this too and Stephanie looked up to where the pod had burst open, ragged tissue hanging dead now above her, spatting some strange plasm across the ceiling. It had stained and flaked like old paint. Stephanie traced her light across all of this until it landed on a small shape, covered by linen. The cloth was stained dark brown and it grew in a whorl from the center of the shape, disappearing to feathering lines at the very edges. A horrible well opened up in the very bottom of her stomach. Stephanie knew what was under there, and she knew now the terrible truth:

The Bric-a-Brac Man was nothing supernatural. There had never been any ghosts haunting this house. It was creepy and old and dank and yet it was nothing more than a house, a staging ground for the creature’s hunt, or perhaps a place for it to rest while it digested. Stephanie pulled out her phone to dial for help, then realized how it all might look. An anonymous tip would be better. Something to point the police in the right direction. They would likely censor all mention of the organic debris stuck to the walls, but at least they would find the body. At least Jeffrey King’s family would have answers.

And Katie? asked a voice. What about her? You know what this means.

Stephanie pushed the voice away. There’d be time for it later. The walls around her felt as if they’d begun to close. The stone but inches away from her skin. She turned her body sideways and slid through the halls, holding her breath as if the air had turned miasmic. Earth turned to stone turned to wood as she wended her way along, until at last she was at the bottom of the stairs. The clouds must have cleared because moonlight shone cold white light through to the landing. She began her ascent, her mind filled with memories of childhood, of running up the stairs from the basement on her hands-and-feet with Katie so that they might go faster, might escape whatever it was that surely lurked below with silvered teeth and pointed claw.

This thought was torn away from her by a shadow filling the doorway. It was then that Stephanie received an answer to a question she’d yet to ask. The front door had not responded to her ministrations at the windows, nor had a ghost swung the way open for her.

It had opened because somebody was home.

Stephanie opened her mouth to scream. The basement door slammed shut.

#20 – Rhumen’s Rules For Scrying

Hello, young mage! If you are reading this, please accept my congratulations on the purchase of a new scrying-glass. The acquisition of a scrying-glass is always a momentous day in the training of any budding sorcerer, and while I am certain that your instructor or instructors have provided you with ample information about how to use said scrying-glass, it is incumbent upon me, Arch-Magus Rhumen, to dive deeper into the potential pits and follies of this device.

What are you waiting for? Have you never wished for sight to extend beyond what your own eyes can offer? Read on, intrepid explorer! Learn about the mysteries and marvels of your new instrument!

Rule #1 – Do not leave the scry-glass unattended!

As I write these rules, I do so with the assumption that your teacher has taught you the fundamentals of operating the scrying-glass. The mechanism, of course, is quite simple; you simply pour a phial of scry-water atop the surface of the bowl, then channel your magick into the contents until they reveal whatever it is you wish to see.

There is, however, one piece of education that is often forgotten, especially among amateur instructors; the scrying-glass is a powerful magical instrument and, as such, should not be left unattended. To scry is to see, yes, but one fundamental part of learning to scry is understanding that there is far more to seeing than sight. Best not learn this the wrong way.

Rule #2 – Clear your mind.

When one pours the scry-water into the bowl, they may find their minds occupied by any number of things. This is especially common for new students, who are seeking to learn a whole host of spells, hexes, and other incantations – not to mention any other trivialities of the human experience that may wander in. While the jumbled contents of the mind are certainly understandable under these circumstances, it is imperative that they do not override your own common sense; Remember, the contents of the scrying-glass are shaped by your mind. Should you fail to clear your mind before using the glass, the consequences may be dire. Do not forget: the glass is capable of falsehoods. It is on you, the mage, to harness it and bend it towards reality.

Rule #3 – Never use the glass with a partner.

This rule follows the principle laid out in the second rule; the scrying-glass is a device meant to be operated by one individual at one time. Should two mages attempt to channel magick into the glass simultaneously, the potential for distortions or other corruptions escalates significantly, as it is nigh impossible for two individuals to picture the same image at the same time.

An example: envision a single red flower. Perhaps it is in a meadow. I am picturing it, too. Write down a description of the flower, or draw it if you will. What are the shape of the petals? Does it have the appearance of a bulb, or are the petals flat and opened to the sun? What about the stem? How many leaves adorn it? Are there any thorns? If so, are they straight like a rose’s, or hooked like a hawk’s talon? What about the colour of the flower itself? When I ask you to picture a red flower, are you picturing a bloody crimson, or a vivacious scarlet? Or, perhaps, is it closer to what I might call orange? Please hurry. At some point, we should get on to describing the meadow in which this flower lies.

Do you now grasp my point? It would be fruitless for me to even attempt to describe my image of this flower, for there is virtually no possibility that our two minds are aligned. Indeed, even twins, so common among sorcerers, cannot use the glass together, for the scrying-glass is perception made manifest, and one’s perception is unique to them alone.

Rule #4 – Ensure the scrying-glass is supplied with a constant stream of mana.

While the experienced user of magical instruments may find the above rule to be almost comically straightforward, these devices are not as intuitive as one might think. Think of when one places a kettle by a fire or removes a garment from a dye-bath. The process followed therein ceases from the moment the article or instrument is removed from the reagent.

Such is not the case with a scrying-glass. With these devices, the stream of mana must be continuously channeled, even as one seeks to end their scry-session. To properly finish using the device, the sorcerer must slowly diminish the speed and volume of the mana they channel to the glass. Failing to do so greatly increases the risk of a catastrophe – one that may pose a threat to your life, your school, or even your world itself!

If it helps, please consider the following mnemonic: “Channel the same so there’s no-one to blame.”

Rule #5 – Never attempt to scry yourself.

We begin now to venture into the rules beyond basic maintenance and operation of the device. While some of the remaining rules may seem odd or outlandish, it is important that we remember that it is the nature of sorcerers and mages to push the boundaries of known experience. What might seem like the height of delusion for one wizard may be an untapped vein of knowledge for another!

Consider the looking-glass. Instead of scrying-water from a phial, it is constructed by artisans in dusty workshops, labouring to ensure the sheen is perfect. They are then carefully hung, or placed in wooden or metal frames, then passed on to their beholders. And yet, despite all of the care and labour that goes into their construction, they are the products of the physical world. When one glances in a mirror, they shall always see themselves looking back. Such is the case from the poorest serf gazing drunkenly into a dusty tavern-glass, to the highest lord, looking down their nose at the figure within the gilded frame. While the circumstances may change, the fundamental operation does not.

Such is not the case with the scrying-glass. As we have covered in previous entries, the success or failure of the glass’s operator depends wholly on the skill and care they take during use. It also depends, however, on one’s understanding of physical reality. Though much of this has likely been covered in your courses on the universe’s firmament and structure, I shall, at the risk of repetition, highlight a few common instances.

The first, of course, is never to scry yourself. Consider the following question: do you know what the back of your own head looks like? Likely not. To attempt to see it is to seek out a physical impossibility. To scry upon a foreign land or nearby market is merely to simulate human experience, albeit from afar; in theory, one could attend these places, feel the breeze upon their cheeks, or perhaps hear the bustle of the bazaar up-close. There is no such situation where one can do the same and look at the back of their own head. While attempts have been reported, they have been thankfully slim; students wishing to check the length of their beard or to pop an errant boil are encouraged to use true glass rather than a magical one. To attempt otherwise is to risk ego death or worse.

Consider: what would you do if your other self looked back?

Rule #6 – Never attempt to scry the unknown.

“But,” you ask, “Arch-Magus Rhumen, why can we not seek out the unknown? Is this not the purpose of the scrying-glass or, indeed, of all magicks?”

This question, while very astute, is also a common one. Please first consider that I have accounted for such things before elucidating these rules into a book. To wit: yes, the purpose of the scrying-glass is to seek out the distant and unknown. But there is, however, a difference between the unknown and the unknown. We know that the land of Traymorel exists beyond the sunrise because sailors and merchants have travelled across the bounds of the sea to discover it. They’ve told stories of savannahs covered with strange grasses taller than a man on horseback. They’ve passed on word of its people, with their odd customs and quick speech. They’ve brought back foreign and exotic fruits, meats, and wines. In short: everything about this land can be perceived, so long as the seeker has the will and drive to explore.

Such is not the case with the truly unknown. Have you ever considered what the inside of our sun might look like? What about the distant stars in the sky? Or, perhaps, more abstract – what if you tried to scry out a thought? There are some things beyond sight in this cosmos. To attempt to witness them is to seek out madness.

Rule #7 – Never attempt to scry the past.

The inverse of this, of course, is never to attempt to scry the future. But the vast majority of mages, even the unwashed novices, carry in them this grain of sense. Perceiving the future is impossible and invariably results in the glass revealing our innermost desires for the future; if we picture ourselves in a tower, attended upon by a coterie of maidens, it will reveal such to us. And why not? When the future is constantly in flux, it makes sense that the glass would turn us towards our desires. While this might be a frustrating limitation of the instrument, it is ultimately harmless.

Such is not the case for attempts to scry the past. The past exists only in memory. The mind does not perceive it the same way, for it knows that it once existed and now cannot again. In memory, the light might seem brighter, or a past lover free of imperfections. The mind allows you picture a world without the dull and omnipresent veneer of hunger, anxiety, or boredom. To perceive the future, no matter how ridiculous it might seem, is a fundamentally optimistic point of view. To scry the past is to risk becoming consumed by nostalgia; we know, at the fundamental cores of our being, that there is no returning to what has been lost.

The astute scholar may ask why, precisely, these two acts differ so greatly. To that I answer: at the heart of both visions is desire, but desire for a bygone past is far different than desire for a better future.

Rule #8 – Do not speak to the glass.

Do not even attempt it. 

Rule #9 – Do not attempt to touch the glass.

Another rule that sounds simpler in the confines of this manual than it is in practice. One common side-effect of scrying is an effect of mental transportation. When a sorcerer stands next to the scrying-glass, brow sweating with the effort of channeling, it is easy for them to become lost in a trance. I do not know a single sorcerer who can claim anything to the contrary; indeed, this is one of the joys of scrying. I’ve stood atop the peaks of Virak and gazed at the cerulean lagoons of Nisobee; with the scrying-glass, the boundless and unimpeachable beauty of our world is but moments away.

Despite this, the sorcerer must remain aware that it is but a glimpse, a porthole into another part of our world. Touching it, as some have attempted to do, risks transportation, among other things.

“Arch-Magus Rhumen,” you ask, voice wheedling in my ear. “Why is that so bad?” Let me begin by instructing you that you should not be attempting to pick apart these rules, no matter how illogical some might seem. Understand that there is always a reason for them.

To answer your question, there is no guarantee of success at transportation. The Translocation Guild have been studying these matters for generations; the Black Towers in the Uroa Mountains are but testaments to their arrogance. Attempting to transport oneself through a scrying-glass will, at best, result in the loss of a limb, severed as the mind’s connection to the glass splinters. At worst, it represents a much greater risk. If you still don’t believe me, look up the Tale of Joolim, who fell into his scrying-glass and scattered gore across a busy market. That should serve as an instructive lesson. Sometimes the most direct consequences are the most educational.

Rule #10 – Do not linger.

This is the final rule, and perhaps the most important. All of the previous rules, in some capacity, have concerned matters of operation, and understandably so; the power of the scrying-glass are immense, but so to are the possibilities for calamity.

I warn here thus of a different, and much more common, potential for failure. The power of the scrying-glass is addicting, and many more powerful than you have tried to resist it. You must be made of sterner stuff than them. While all of the preceding rules have the potential to end in death or madness, many shirk this final rule, for the consequences do not seem so dire.

Do not become lost. Do not stare away into the glass, seeking the distant or the impossible. There are spells to study, books to read, and a world beyond to explore. Too many wizards have been found emaciated or dead beside their scrying-glasses. Do not join them.

You have been given a powerful tool, young mage. If you follow the rules laid out here, I have the utmost confidence you will achieve marvelous things.

#19 – The Church by the Spaceport

1

The Collector checked the station clock, then leaned forward, glancing down the track. He knew that the hypertrain would arrive before he heard it, but humans had been waiting for trains for almost nine hundred years, so looking impatiently was practically engraved in his DNA. 

So too was the word he uttered upon seeing that the train was late.

A nearby Citizen heard him. “Can’t believe they go that quick and still can’t show up on time.”

The Collector said nothing in response, simply sneering at the other man until he relented, raising his hands apologetically. The Collector considered a Citation, but decided against it when the train whipped into the station. Lines of bored travellers began to filter out of the compartments, their steps buoying as they readjusted to gravity outside of the train’s insulated compartments. Ignoring them all, the Collector stepped aboard, finding his seat. Even with the extra Gs, sitting wasn’t necessary, but it gave him the chance to review his route for the day. He adjusted his mask, then turned to the papers.

He already knew the end of the route, of course. He knew all of it, inside and out. This was more ritual than necessity. Looking up, he snapped a quick salutation to the two Clerks strolling past. They nodded his way, and he forced a smile in return. He never had understood how pencil-pushers had fallen above him in the Hierarchy. He turned back to his papers.

“Hey. Taxboy. Got a minute? I’m trying to settle a bet.” The Collector looked up. One of the Clerks, a freckled and boy-faced man, was looking right at him. Talking, too. He knew perfectly well that the Collectors didn’t have a minute, but he didn’t seem to care, either.

“Sure,” said the Collector, doing his best to sound compliant. “What’s the bet?”

“Just a question me and my boy here are trying to answer about you guys.”

“Go for it.”

“Sorry?”

Hesitation. Quick enough to satisfy, too short to notice. “Sorry, sir.”

“That’s better. I just need to know – it’s about your mask.”

“What about it?” The Collector’s fingers found his beak, which stretched away from his face. The Confederacy had mandated it, and the reasons were twofold: the first was that forcing tax collectors to wear old plague-doctor masks seemed to symbolize a kind of aw-shucks-sorry-I-have-to-do-this ethos; the second was that they protected Collectors from retaliation in their personal lives.

“Do you guys have anything under there?” His grin widened. The next words came out in a rush; hasty and over-practiced. “Or is it just a giant pussy on your face?” Next to him, the other Clerk snorted.

“I–we–are just human beings. Just like you. The mask serves a few purposes, the first of wh–”

“–I don’t care about any of that.” The Clerk took a step forward. “I just want to see that pussy. Are you gonna show me that pussy, bitchboy?”

“I–”

“Take. Off. The. Mask.”

The Collector looked around him. Everyone else was looking at their datapads, pretending as if they couldn’t hear. Not likely. Half the people in this car probably had aural mods implanted. He looked back to the Clerk. Thought about asking if it was necessary, then decided against it. The only thing that wasn’t necessary was collecting a Citation over disobeying some power-tripping asshole in the Echelon above him. He gripped the bottom of the mask with his hands and pulled it over his head, revealing blond hair and a ragged goatee. His eyes looked out dully at the Clerks. 

“See,” said the loud one, calling to his friend. “Just like I said – they hide their pussies under those masks.” His friend laughed dutifully. “Alright, thanks for the anatomy lesson, taxboy, but we gotta get to the next car.” He clapped The Collector on the shoulder. “Have fun ruining a few Citizens’ days.”

Then he was gone, along with his friend. The Collector held his breath for five seconds to be sure of it, then turned his head. A few people swiftly looked away. Had they seen his face? Recorded it on their datapads? No way to know.

The Collector checked the clock again. They were now almost eight minutes behind, and he had work to do.

2

The priest watched the ships pass over the city through the stained glass on the west side of his church and wondered if any of them had prayed that morning.

It was a snide thought, one he hated himself for, but he felt it all the same. For him prayer was a ritual as effortless as breathing. He had never understood how the old scholars spoke of prayer as if it was an ordeal. How could it be painful to open yourself up to a source of peerless love? Intimidating, maybe, but painful? He could never imagine that. 

But there, perhaps, was the problem. The sound of his footsteps redounded across the church as he strode to the dais. The pews on either side were snowy with dust. In the racks on their backs, thin tablets pre-loaded with different editions of the Bible waited cold and black. 

Saturdays were the hardest. There was enough to do earlier in the week that he could keep himself busy. He might have allowed dust to gather, but there were other functions and other traditions that he made sure to follow, even if only for himself. In his old age, he had grown accustomed to going to bed late and rising early, knees shouting and aching; this schedule had been motivated in part by the installation of the adboard in the building opposite disrupting his sleep with its incessant flashing. Now, it had become habit, and the days grew shorter and passed more quickly. 

Until Saturday. Saturdays were when he was left alone with his thoughts. He should have been fine-tuning his sermon for the Sunday parishioners, but there was no need for that anymore. Memories of old attendees flickered through his mind, barely more than ideas. Names and faces floated about, but he didn’t know if they matched. Once, he had logged on to the ancient computer in the rectory. He had found photos of people whom he had totally forgotten, provoking a kind of twisting anguish inside his belly. How could he justify forgetting an entire person? He recognized the faces, but no names floated to his mind. They were simply gone.

After that, he hadn’t visited the computer any more.  It was a decision he never regretted. There was no space for technology in this place. The mere existence of the church was thanks to old laws which, even now, the Confederate Council on Religion was seeking to nullify. New religions had cropped up as humanity had spread to distant worlds. Others had simply faded away, adherents too uncertain of God’s place in the wider cosmos.

The priest’s fingers tented in the dust, feeling the cool stone beneath their tips. Sometimes he did this to remind him of this place, of its solidity. There was a permanence to something built of rock instead of steel. A slow vibration began to roll through it, shaking the dust slightly, breathing small clouds into the air. He looked through the windows and to the sky, where a rocket’s plume faded into the distance, generating a strange nausea within him. There seemed to be something spiteful about the spaceport’s placement next door, its existence somehow a symbol of defiance against the heavens. He watched until the billowing clouds dissipated, then his eyes fell again to the floor. 

“Why,” he whispered. “Why did you isolate me, even as you selected me for this mission?” He closed his eyes. He didn’t expect an answer. 

BANG! BANG!

Two booming knocks on the door rolled across the room.

3

The Collector pulled his hand back from the bronze knocker. He wiped it against his shirt, unsure of whether it might be a vector for some kind of virus. He made a mental note to run through a scanner later. 

He took a step back and looked at the building. It rose above him, a massive edifice of brick and stone topped with a pointed spire. An ancient cross symbol could barely be perceived atop it. He checked his logs, wondering if this was the right place or if some Accountant had thought it might be funny to send him to a derelict building slated for demolition. He began to review his datapad, searching frantically for proof, lest someone realize he’d taken the bait.

The name St. Simon’s floated before his eyes just as the door opened. A wizened man in a habit peered out at him. Threads of hair clung like feathers to the sides of his head, lending him the appearance of somebody lost. He squinted in the sun. Fright leaped across his face once his eyes had adjusted.

“Who are you? Why are you wearing that? What do you want?” he asked.  His voice conjured an image of reeds fighting against the wind.

“Depends,” replied the Collector, surprised he didn’t recognize the uniform. “Are you the man in charge here?”

The priest hesitated. “In a sense, I suppose.”

“Is it alright if I come in?”

“Anyone is welcome here,” replied the old man. He pushed the door back, groaning along with it. It was dark beyond the threshold, the kind of dark that seemed to suggest intent. The Collector stepped inside, and the old man closed the door behind him, sealing off the sounds of the world beyond.

“Now, my son. What can I do for you?”

“I’m not your son, old man. I’m a Collector for the Confederacy. You’re behind on your debts to your government.”

This statement was met with silence. Lights flickered above them in alcoves against the walls, simulations of candlelight. The priest looked at the Collector for a long moment, then gestured to a dust-covered pew. “Please, take a seat, my son.”

A frown grew on the Collector’s face, covered by the mask. “I don’t need to sit. I just need you to swipe the church’s chip against my datapad. Or your own, I don’t really care. There’s a fair balance owing. I don’t want to have to come back.”
This last part was true. The Collector hated coming back. The Confederacy always made sure they got their due, but they were patient. Steady acceleration was the best way to instill fear but prevent resistance. It made sense in practice, but in the short term it made for a series of annoying trips.

“You won’t need to come back,” replied the priest. “I don’t have the money, and I don’t have the means to get it.”

“What?”

“If I had the money, I would certainly pay it. But I don’t, so I can’t.”

“Find it. Get some of your congregation to tithe a little extra.”

At this, the old man’s face changed, but only for a moment. He regained his composure, then met the eyes of the mask. The Collector was impressed. People rarely looked directly at the mask. Something about it discomfited them. He supposed that was another benefit the Confederacy appreciated. “I’m sorry,” said the priest. “I don’t have any parishioners. I don’t expect I will again.”

“And why not?” asked the Collector, not really sure why he even was asking. 

“I’ll tell you,” answered the priest, “but only if you sit down.” He gestured to the pew beside him.

Silence fell between them. The Collector felt a low vibration in the floor and idly wondered what it was. The midday sun had crested over the church and the light through the stained glass was now faint, indirect. Shadows had grown long, clutching the pews from either end. The priest sat in one of the remaining zones of light. The Collector sat next to him, right where the dark started.

“Thank you,” said the priest. Now, let me ask you a question: “Do you believe in God?”

4

“What?” It was not a question the Collector had ever considered.

“Do you believe in God?” repeated the priest. “It’s a fairly simple question, at least in terms of the direct answer. Obviously the reasons for one’s conclusion might vary, of course.”

The Collector’s mask stared back at the priest with dull, black eyes. What expression might he be making behind them? The priest tried to picture what the Collector’s face might look like. The voice sounded young enough, but not too young. There was a weariness that only came with age. He wondered about the face. The face always told the truth. He opened his mouth to ask what the purpose of the mask was, but the Collector interrupted, clearing his throat: “I don’t see what this has to do with anything. I’m here for your taxes, not a sermon.”

The priest only smiled. “For believers, it has everything to do with everything. Yet for the irreligious, nothing is more ludicrous than what I do. I take it that is your answer?”

“What? No–”

“No?” repeated the priest, raising an eyebrow. “So do you feel differently about matters?”

A snort burst from behind the mask, the sound of a man who had regained his composure. “Stop with your games, old man. You can’t twist me into believing in your God.”

“I’m not asking you to believe,” said the priest. “I understand that those kind of decisions don’t just come to a single person telling you what to do. I was asking if you believed, which is a different thing entirely. Your answers have left the matter somewhat confused, I’ll admit, but I accept that this may not have been the kind of thing you’ve thought much about.”

“You don’t know me–”

“I don’t need to,” said the priest, shrugging away the comment. “People aren’t as different from one another as you think. Especially in this Confederacy, with its constant talk of progress and of escaping our tradit–”

“Careful, old man. I’ve been patient with you, but there’s no need to speak ill of the Confederacy. I can tell the next Echelon that you didn’t have the money for the taxes, and they will work on a new strategy, but I cannot tell them that I failed to issue a Citation for poisoned words.”

“Do it, then. One Citation makes no difference. If you give me more, then I will remember that my body is but a vessel, nothing more.” A faint turning of his lips, not quite a smile. “Water flows free when the jar breaks, after all.” 

Here fell a silence so quiet that it could be heard. The bird-mask tilted to the side for a moment, then back, eerily similar to the pantomimed self. The sun had begun to crest to the west, scattering light further across the pews. Motes of dust, disturbed by long-awaited visitors, floated in the kaleidoscopic light. No signs of falling. The distant sound of another rocket launch could be heard. It was just past one, which meant it was likely headed for Opportunity. With two extra hours in the day, the Martian commuters liked to start late.

The man in the mask finally spoke. “You are a strange old man.”

This actually generated a laugh from the priest. “Strange! Strange only means different, so I suppose that is true – but at least I am honest. You are the one in the costume. How can we reach a concordance if I don’t even know who I am speaking with?”

“Forget the costume. There’s no bargain to be struck here. Tell me the reason why you cannot pay, and I will do what I can to lessen the punishment.” 

“I’ve already told you,” replied the old man.

“You haven’t told me shit.”

“Please,” said the priest, raising his hand. “I understand you have a duty, and that you are frustrated, but there is no need for foul language. Please respect that, in a sense, this is my home.”

“You don’t get to call the shots here.”

“Who does? You? Surely you didn’t come here of your own volition? Is this what you saw yourself doing as a boy?” The priest’s arm flew up, pointing at the window. The pillar of smoke stretched across the sky, though the ship had already disappeared into the blue. “Was there nothing you wanted more?”

“You don’t get to tell me what I wanted, old man.”

“You’re right, I don’t. You tell me.”

Here the Collector’s patience ended. The mask snapped to the priest. “Don’t point at the sky and pretend you know me, old man. Don’t hide in your stone house and act as if the world hasn’t passed you and your God by. Don’t act as if adhering to old traditions and fables enlightens you. It doesn’t. You know what I think? I think you don’t have the money because you can’t find any fools stupid enough to pay your fucking tithes. You are the last in a long line of men who held that post, and you are facing something worse than death – irrelevancy.” The mask’s eyes began to fog up, growing cloudy from the inside with the exertion of anger. One gloved hand came up, ripping the mask off, revealing blond hair stringy with sweat and wild sunken eyes peering from beneath.

The priest’s eyes met those of the Collector, if only for a moment. Then they fell. His hand traced a line in the dust, a series of whorls of no determinate pattern. “You have the lay of it. People don’t attend anymore.” Red light from the stained glass was beginning to creep across his face, across his bald pate. He turned back to the Collector. “Why would they? What purpose does this place have in a world where you can prolong life? Where one can easily go to other worlds? How far can God truly see?”

“Why are you telling me this, old man?”

“You asked why I could not pay. This is why.”

The Collector watched the priest, looking for something he could not see. Then he picked up the mask, rising to his feet. “You accuse me of not having purpose. If what you’ve told me is true, how can you still have purpose?”

“It’s not the task, but the choice. The choice is what drives us.”

“That doesn’t make any sense! Your purpose, your life – it’s just as much a joke as mine.”

“Yes, but who made that choice? You, or somebody else?”

“Forget this.” The Collector stuffed the mask on to his face, twisting it back into place. “I’ll be back in a week. Make sure you have my money.”

The priest said nothing in response. The Collector waited a little longer, then dragged open the church door and rushed out into the sunlight.

5

Outside, the day had warmed significantly. The Collector began to sweat beneath his mask. Something about it taking it off highlighted how hot it had been. He began to walk back to the train station. Along the way, he passed by the spaceport. He stopped at the fence and watched as they pulled back the glossy red-and-silver boarding ramp. The nose of the rocket was pointed straight upwards. Faces of all different colours could be seen through the portholes. A countdown began. A light beneath the rocket ignited.

As he watched the rocket launch, the Collector’s thoughts turned back to the priest and his church. He realized he was excited to return. 

#18 – Mr. Onion

This all happened a very long time ago.

There was once a faraway land of verdant forests, rolling fields, and strong castles. It was ruled by a Duke, though both his name and the name of the land itself have been forgotten. Towers of concrete and glass are all that grow there now. 

But that is now, and this was then. Back then, there was a small farm on the borders of the duchy. A clear stream cut through the farm between the single straw-thatched home and the fields. There, a short wooden barn housed sheep, protecting them from the few wolves which lived in the forest. The stream itself went on to the woods, disappearing beneath the dark canopy. Midges hovered lazily over the surface of the water. It was late in the summer, and the fields were heavy with their crop. The harvest was soon, and though the Duke would have his share, he was not a cruel master. The farmers who lived in the straw-thatched house blessed him each morning for his kindness, praying for his health. The world was quiet and fair.

The heat had only just begun to rise when Gwendolyn rushed out the door. She had recently realized that, if she woke up earlier, she would have more time to play before her father and mother sent her to work the fields. Not for the first time, she wished that her parents had had a son. They had told her how they had prayed to God for a strong son who might help their farm grow, and instead He had sent a daughter. Gwendolyn had asked if they were upset with God, and both her father and mother had shaken their heads and said that they could never be upset that He had given her to them. 

Gwendolyn always had found this hard to believe. She stepped through the mud and clay on the side of the stream, feeling the squelching sound beneath her feet. She caught a glimpse of her face in the water, then turned away, ashamed by what she had seen. It wasn’t her fault that she’d caught a bout of the pox in her youth. Scars wreathed her face, and though her father and mother both assured her that she was beautiful, she knew they were lying. She wiped at her eyes, incensed by the injustice of it all. She was determined to help her family on the farm. The Lord had chosen to give them a daughter instead of sons, then stole away her beauty. What good was she now to her parents? She had spent many nights thinking about this. Her cot was quiet and filled with insects, just adjacent to the small farmhouse’s kitchen. She knew her parents were doing the best they could, and so in that implacable and itchy dark she pledged that, in the absence of a son, she would do the best she could.

This determination was what pushed her away from play and out into the fields on that summer morning. Gwendolyn picked her way through stalks of corn, looking for any diseased or infected ears. She uprooted a carrot to see if the crop might be ready, but saw it would need another week or two yet. Gnawing on the end of the undergrown root, she spied a gopher digging in the potato patch. Without taking her eyes off of the rodent, she picked up a stone. It was as large as the palm of her hand and smooth on all sides. The animal’s eyes tracked her, but its jaw kept working defiantly. Her arm snapped out, sending the stone careening into the gopher’s side. It scrambled away toward its burrow, squeaking all the while.

“That wasn’t very nice,” said a voice, gravelly and slick all at once.

It wasn’t a voice that Gwendolyn recognized. Frowning, she turned and looked for the speaker, but there was no one behind her.

“Down here, sweetheart.”

Gwendolyn looked down at her feet and saw before her a single red onion, a triumphant stalk crowning its head. A pair of wet eyes blinked up at her, and a wide mouth stretched across the bulb’s front.

Gwendolyn leaped backwards immediately, making the sign of the cross before her. “Demon!” She slipped in the mud and fell, too startled even to worry about her mother seeing the stains along the back of her dress.

Two thin curls peeled away from the onion’s side, lending to it the appearance of arms. They laid themselves flat, as if trying to reassure the frightened girl. “Now, now, girlie, I ain’t no demon. I’m Mr. Onion, and this is my patch!”

Gwendolyn said nothing, her eyes wide with terror.

“What? You ain’t never seen a talkin’ onion before?”

“Demon,” repeated Gwendolyn, though with less fire than before.

“Do you even know what a demon looks like, little girl? D’you think any self-respectin’ demon would be caught dead looking like this?” The arm-curls gestured along the face of the bulb. “I ain’t no demon, just an onion tryin’ to make a life for himself.”

“You’re not a demon?” asked Gwendolyn.

“That’s what I said.”

“Wh-why did you scare me then?”

“I was just tryin’ to get your attention. You were being a real douche to that gopher!”

“What’s a douche?” Gwendolyn had sat up now and was wiping the dirt off of her dress and elbows. Mr. Onion stood at her feet, but made no sign of coming closer.

“Ah, right. Forgot you don’t have those yet. That’s my bad. Whatever it was that brought me into this world gave me the gift of portent.” He said portent with an exaggerated o-sound, as if trying to add an air of mystery to the word.

“My father told me not to trust fortune-tellers and mystics,” said Gwendolyn. “He said that they were the servants of the devil.”

“I ain’t none of that! I just popped out of my little hole in the ground to give you a heads-up about a few small things. You can ask any question you like.”

Gwendolyn looked over the shoulder back to the farmhouse. The sun was still low in the sky, and no smoke floated yet from the chimney. The sounds of sheep stirring had begun to carry over the fields from their ramshackle barn, but they were intermittent and subdued. She looked back to Mr. Onion, who looked up at her with patient eyes. “Okay,” she said. “But quick now.”

“Great!” he said, and a smile broke across his face. “Where d’you wanna start?”

Gwendolyn considered for a moment, then asked: “My family is terribly poor, and my parents have prayed for a son for many years. Will he ever come?”

“Nah,” said Mr. Onion, “that oven is burnt out. You’re all they’re gonna get.”

The bluntness of this comment stung, but Gwendolyn did her best to shrug it off. If anything, the crassness of this small creature had convinced her that he was not a servant of the devil, whom she imagined would speak much more sweetly than this bitter thing. 

“Th-thank you,” she stammered. “I suppose that I could have guessed that.” She considered another question. “What about me?”

“What about you?”

“Will I marry? Will my husband bring security to my family’s home?”

“Girl, have you seen yourself? Yeesh! I wouldn’t count on it.”

Gwendolyn recoiled as if slapped. Why was this small creature being so cruel? And yet, though tears were beginning to form in her eyes, a certain curiosity lingered as well. Really, had she thought a pock-marked farm girl would ever find a husband? The little beast had done nothing but confirm what she already knew. “What about my farm? Will it be prosperous for years to come?”

Mr. Onion shrugged. “Who can say? There’s gonna be a lot of wars in this country in the next few decades, believe you me. Maybe you’ll escape, maybe you won’t. Maybe that Duke of yours will call up your daddy to fight and he’ll find himself with an arrow through his neck, far from here.” His smile broadened. “After that, well, I’d suppose it’d be just you and mom, right? Well, I’m sure that’ll be fine.” He waited for a brief moment. “Come on, ask me if it’ll be fine.”

“I shan’t. You are enjoying this.”

“I’m just sharing the knowledge, friend to friend. I’m sorry if you don’t like what you have to say.” 

“Perhaps I should be going. There’s a lot of work to be done, and mother and father will likely be awake soon.” She turned to go.

“Wait,” cried Mr. Onion, one arm-curl outstretched. His eyes looked up at her, damp and pleading. “I have so much more to say.”

Gwendolyn looked back. Uncertainty coloured her face. “Go on, then. Be quick about it.”

“Oh, where to start! Well, let’s see. In twenty years or so, the plague will return. Have you heard about that? Not sure what record-keeping is like these days. Don’t worry, you will. What else? Well, remember that war I mentioned? Your beloved Duke will lose, and his head will be tarred and mounted on a pike for all to see.” His voice began to increase in pace, and he began spouting items off rapid-fire. He spoke of plague and war and famine. He spoke of a world on fire. He spoke of lands beyond the sea where this continent’s disease and conflict would spread, and he did it all with a malignant kind of glee on his face. By the end of it, Gwendolyn was weeping softly, her body shaking.

“Why are you so cruel?” she asked. “Why do you take such pleasure in speaking such ills into being?”

Mr. Onion’s eyes widened. “What didja expect? I’m an onion–I’m gonna make you cry!” Then the grin returned, and he continued on, speaking of things that simply could not be:

“There will be a time when farms will shrink and disappear.”

“There will be a loss of faith in your beloved God.”

“There will be weapons that can destroy entire cities.”

“There will be wars that sweep the entire world.”

“There will be an era of prosperity, but with it will come the poisoning of the air and the water. Certain
animals will disappear, never to be seen again”

“There will be a time when families split apart, forgetting to love their fathers and mothers. They will only gather on Christmas, but only to give each other gifts, never to honour Christ himself.”

“There will never truly be an end to serfdom in the modern world; people will only be given the powerful illusion of freedom, but instead they will continue to be forced to work long and painful hours for people much richer than themselves, all to etch out a bleak and ragged existe—”

Gwendolyn’s foot came crashing down on Mr. Onion, caving in the top of the bulb. A spray of onion juice shot out across the loamy soil as the bulb sundered. There was a blessed quiet. She looked down, lifting her foot to see what was left. The innards of the onion had been forced through his mouth, effectively turning him inside-out. The stalk was flat, limp and dead. Gwendolyn sat down next to the corpse of Mr. Onion, prodding it with her toe. 

It did not move. She spat on the ruined onion. “Couldn’t predict that, now could you?” she asked. 

Gwendolyn picked herself up, brushing the dirt and mud from her dress. The sun was high in the sky now, a ball of fire in the clearest blue she’d ever known. The day was fixing to be hot, but the breeze was fresh and clean. 

Smiling, she raced off, ready to make the world her own.

#17 – These Haunted Streets

This is Part Four of a longer narrative. You can read Part One here, or the most recent entry here.

You can’t describe a city. It’s not like anything else. If I see a flower growing outside my window, I can tell you what it looks like; I would start by describing the colour and shape of its petals, whether it faces the sun or not. I might even guess whether it looks like an annual or perennial based on my limited understanding of such things. Maybe I’d venture to guess that it looks like the kind of flower you might give your partner or your mother or your grandmother, if you have such people in your life. Even that, however, ventures toward the abstract.

A city operates much the same way. I can tell you what the streets of Kingston look like; I can tell you how the city itself is shaped as if roads burst out from some concrete womb by the water, stretching north and west from their origin until they fall away at the city limits. I can say that, in many respects, it’s a town like any other town you might find in this part of Ontario. Over-priced matchbox houses are dotted in rows along gently curving pre-planned streets, owned by a population dedicated to twice-daily cross-town pilgrimages. 

But there’s another part to the city. Come with me to the east, past the ancient grey walls of the lakeside penitentiary. Watch as the roads grow tighter and less organized. Most of the old houses here belong to students, rented out by slumlords who care little for the history they own. You can see them lining the streets on the weekends, dull drunk eyes listlessly tracking you as you sail past, just as transient as they are. They disappear. Beyond them you see the core. Buildings of cold grey limestone begin to rise around you; the tallest only a few storeys, but striking enough still that you have a sense of what the city used to be. Closing your eyes allows you to see the streets as they were; streets of dirt churned up by cart-wheels and horseshoes, where people stumbled and spat as they watched you pass. You open your eyes. Windows above you are lined with ads for stretchy denim and strapless bras. You blink and the ads disappear, replaced instead with rows of faces behind the glass: people who lived lives, who loved, and who died in this place before anyone ever considered you.

Kingston is old. Kingston is old unlike almost any other place in the Americas. And though it is the opinion of my committee that ghosts–at least as we understand them–are creations of the mind, it is my conclusion that the sheer age of this city lends itself to a greater amount of hauntings per capita than almost anywhere else on this continent. 

When you trace Kingston’s history, the stories of hauntings begin almost simultaneously. French colonists, who called this place Cataraqui, write fitfully of les fantômes du forêt, though it cannot be said for certain whether these refer to neighbouring indigenous peoples or to something less physical. 

While records are spotty during the transition between French and British occupation, the construction of the Kingston Penitentiary in 1835 led almost immediately to a spike in reports. The prison itself, now closed, is a monument to the worst of the North American penal system; its implacable grey walls are carved from the same limestone as much of the city and slope laconically down to the water. To be inside them is to be subjected to a kind of pervasive claustrophobia; a sense that one has been swallowed by some great stone beast. A cylindrical concourse thrusts out of the middle of the yard, its wings stretching out toward the exterior walls. Inside these wings are the cell-blocks, almost cartoonishly bleak; literal bars separated these men from the world beyond.

It’s quiet in the prison now. It was decommissioned in 2013 and the prisoners moved elsewhere. I’ve been there; the city runs tours every summer, charging for a glimpse inside the walls. Indeed, there is a vaguely voyeuristic quality to the experience; walking across those yards, it was hard not to imagine haggard and sallow men staring with dead eyes out of their cells, colourless light filtering in from windows too high to make a difference. Former prison guards spin stories of riots, of violence, and of death. Vague allusions are made to training opportunities the prisoners had, but the lasting feeling is one of unease. One begins to wonder what that place is like at night, once the last fox has skulked its way across the yard. What kind of sounds do empty and drafty prisons make? Are they as dark as we imagine? What about the shops, the yards, the solitary cells? Do they remember what the city’s forgotten?

If the stories are true, they do.

Kingston has many places like this; the prison is only the most obvious example. East of the river stands Fort Henry, where a British garrison was stationed for many years in the nineteenth century; some speak of old training drills still heard after dark. The city itself is dotted with graveyards, many of which have since been swallowed up by suburbia. Inns and pubs from bygone days line the streets and hold secrets of their own. Faint lights in distant windows and voices in empty rooms are commonplace in Kingston. It’s hard to filter the signal from the noise, of course; the stories vary wildly. While most Kingstonians have heard of the Streetlight Man; fewer still know about the ghostlights of Skeleton Park or have heard the whispers in the cemeteries.

The purpose of sharing the above stories is to lend credence to the possibility that a place like this has power. Though I have yet to be afforded the funding required to explore this theory, I believe in a theory of paranormal (or parapsychological, as the committee prefers) activity that suggests that majority of events concern hotspots, not dissimilar from how volcanic and tectonic activities primarily take place along fault lines. What draws these lines? As yet, I’m not certain. Certainly, as I’ve established above, the older a place is, the more likely it is to be haunted. I don’t yet know why, but what I can say is that I’m not finished. I’ve been pushing and prodding for the last two years. The disappearance of Jeff King was big news in town when it happened, but residents eventually rallied to quash the story once it hit the national news, fearing the damage it might cause to the city’s tourist industry. With no leads in the case and with his mother locked away in a mental institution, there was little for the media to grasp on to, so they got bored and drifted away.

To be clear, I publish the below out of a duty to my field. While I could have gone to the media and secured some level of fame and notoriety for my work, both a sense of journalistic integrity and moral authority required me to place it here, before my committee. I understand the committee is loath to accept the possibility of things beyond our ken; while I’m appreciative of that perspective, I am required to follow the truth – no matter how unbelievable it may seem.

Here follows an interview with Althea King, the last surviving sane member of the King family. She agreed to the interview on the condition that her words be represented fully as recorded. Any editing I’ve done is solely for clarification where the quality of the recording dips; note that the third party near the end is a direct transcription of events as they happened, and that I will be submitting the .mp3 files to corroborate this fact.

STEPHANIE NORWOOD: Mrs. King, I would like to let you know that I’ve begun recording our conversation. If you’d like me to stop at any point, please just ask.

ALTHEA KING: Of course, dear. Before we begin, would you like some tea?

SN: That would be lovely, thank you.

AK: What do you like? Earl Grey? English Breakfast? I think I might even have some Irish Breakfast kicking around. Alvin had a fondness for it, but it always tasted too, well, bready for me.

SN: I’d be happy to try the Irish Breakfast, if you think you can find it. Sometimes I just like something a little more hearty in the morning.

AK: I understand, I understand. [Here follow the sounds of Mrs. King busying herself in the kitchen.] Is your little cassette recorder powerful enough to pick up our conversation if I speak to you from the kitchen?

SN: It should be, yes. Please, go ahead. I have some questions I wanted to ask you, but it sounds like you’re eager to get started.

AK: Yes, I suppose you could call it that. [The chattering of teacups drowns out a few words] –pleased as punch that you reached out. I don’t know how Alvin feels about it, since he took great pains to remove us from that whole media circus when Jeffy disappeared, but I was always eager to speak. It seemed to me like volunteering information was the best thing we could do for Jeffy. [The quality of her voice improves as she returns to the living area and sits across from me on the couch] Here’s your tea, dear. 

SN: Thank you. Just a question – you said “I don’t know how Alvin feels about it” – didn’t Mr. King pass away in 2019?

AK: Of course. But I don’t believe the dead are ever truly gone. Do you?

SN: I’d like to think they aren’t. A big part of my work is trying to prove that.

AK: And that’s why you want to ask me about Jeffy.

SN: Yes and no. I want to ask you about your grandson’s disappearance because I’m trying to find the person who did it.

AK: Do you know about the photo?

SN: Yes, I do. 

AK: Alvin was very close to her. When she went into that state of shock . . . I think it took a part of him away. He was never quite right after that. He visited her, you know.

SN: He did? I didn’t even know she was allowed visitors. [Note: I looked into this, and it appears that Leanne King experienced brief periods of lucidity in 2018. While her medical records are sealed, it seems strange to me that she would seemingly improve before declining to the state she’s in now. I wonder if this is coincidence, or if there’s something more to it.] 

AK: Not any more. But he used to go up every Sunday. He would wheel her out to the little courtyard they have at the hospital. There’s a pond there, and sometimes ducks would fly down and bob on the surface of the water. Alvin would sneak in bread in his pocket and throw it to the ducks to try to get a reaction out of her as they fought over it. Or he would read to her. She never said a word, but sometimes her eyes followed him. I think he lived for those moments, and once she declined, so did he.

SN: Have you spoken to her since his passing? Forgive me if that’s an inappropriate question.

AK: Not at all. I understand the desire to ask. No, I haven’t been up there. She was Alvin’s daughter from his first marriage, and I didn’t meet her until after she’d moved out and had Jeffy. I always liked her, but I can’t truly say it was a mother-daughter relationship. Does that make me sound like an awful person? Please don’t think I haven’t thought of it. Sometimes I just think I’d do more harm than good, and that me going would remind her of that awful Christmas.

SN: I think it makes you sound like a human being, and that you shouldn’t fault yourself for trying to do what you think is right.

AK: That’s very sweet of you to say. 

SN: You mentioned that day. Are you able to tell me anything else?

AK: I don’t think I have anything to share that wasn’t already in the papers. 

SN: Maybe just try running me through the day as you remember it. Sometimes that helps me when I’m trying to remember something.

AK: Alright. Hm. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought of this. I suppose I’d start by saying that I remember arriving there a little bit later in the day, because Leanne had wanted her and Jeffy to be able to open his presents by himself. Chris [Note: Leanne’s late husband]  had passed in the summer, so it was the first Christmas without him. I think she thought having me and Alvin there would make that more obvious. I don’t know if I entirely agreed with that line of thought, but it was her decision to make and so Alvin and I abided by it. 

SN: What time would you say you arrived?

AK: Oh, maybe about four or so. It’s so hard to remember. I know we were there before dinner. As soon as we got in the door, Jeffy was waving this old-fashioned Polaroid camera in our faces. I didn’t even know they still made those, I was so surprised. I would have thought for certain that, with all of the newfangled technology these days, they wouldn’t still be making cameras with film.

SN: It’s hard to beat the classics. 

AK: That it is. So anyway, we came in and visited for a short while. Jeffy was taking pictures and they were making little whrrr sounds as they printed, floating out and onto the carpet. I think it was starting to annoy his mother, so she suggested that he go and take some pictures around the house while she prepared dinner. He ran off to do just that, and that was the last time I saw him. 

SN: I’m sorry.

AK: Thank you. In a way, I’m somewhat relieved. I never saw the photo that Leanne found. My last memory of my grandson is of him running off, happy to be alive. There’s worse final memories to have of somebody than that.

SN: I agree. Are you able to tell me what happened next?

AK: There’s not much left to tell. I offered to help Leanne with the meal, but she kind of brushed me off. I think it was another situation where she wanted to be in charge. I think she saw this whole Christmas as a chance for her to prove herself. I didn’t take offense, either. I wanted her to do what she needed to do.

SN: So what did you do instead?

AK: Alvin and I just watched a movie. I don’t even remember which one – maybe because we both fell asleep on the couch. A privilege of being old, I guess; nobody expects anything else. But I don’t remember anything more after that, until we heard Leanne scream that awful scream. Alvin leaped up and ran upstairs. I’d never seen him move so fast in all my life. I had this terrible feeling in my chest and some part of me knew something was wrong. I went to the phone and called 9-1-1 and told them to send whoever they could, because something horrible had happened. Then I went to wait outside for the authorities to arrive.

SN: Did they take long to get there?

AK: No, not long at all. But it felt long. It was just me out there, standing in the rain. Isn’t rain on Christmas awful? But I couldn’t go back inside.

SN: Why did it feel so long? Just because of the adrenaline?

AK: Possibly, but also because of the house.

SN: Leanne’s house? I don’t remember reading anything about it in the reports.

AK: Not hers. The one up the street. 

SN: With all due respect, wasn’t this at a house in a suburban neighbourhood? What made this other house notable?

AK: I’d never seen it before. 

SN: What do you mean? How often did you visit?

AK: Often enough, but you’re missing what I’m saying. This was the kind of house that you’d notice. It doesn’t look like the others. Do you know all of those old-fashioned buildings downtown? The ones made out of limestone. This was like that, except it was in one of the brand-new neighbourhoods where Leanne and Jeffy lived. It was two storeys tall, so it wasn’t exactly out of the way. I just remember looking up and down the street for the policemen or firemen or whoever they were sending, and then I saw the house and immediately felt terrible.

SN: In what way?

AK: In every way. I got chills all over my body, and there was a rush of nausea unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I thought I was going to faint. 

SN: All that just from looking?

AK: I know it sounds unbelievable, and I wish I had an answer that made more sense. All I know is that on the day Jeffy disappeared, I saw a house that I’d never seen before and it made me feel deeply unwell. 

SN: Do you know if it’s still there? Did you ever tell anyone about the house?

AK: I told Alvin. He was a kind man, but something in him changed when Jeffy disappeared and Leanne fell ill. He became incensed when I told him that I thought the house had something to do with it. I still remember – he was sitting right where you are now. He stood up without saying a word and walked to the closet. He put on this old beige jacket that he always wore. I heard a jangling sound as he checked to see if his keys were in his pocket. He took one last look at me, and then he was gone.

SN: Where did he go?

AK: To the house, of course. It was getting on to dark then, and I saw the flash of the headlights as he spun out of the driveway. He didn’t come back until almost midnight.

SN: But this house – it would only be what, ten minutes from here?

AK: I know. It didn’t make sense to me either. I thought about calling the police, but I’ve heard they make you wait twenty-four hours to report a missing person, so I didn’t. When he came back, his hair was matted to his forehead and he was cold with old sweat. 

SN: What time of year was this?

AK: March, just a few months after the disappearance. It was cold out.

SN: Did he ever tell you what happened?

AK: Eventually. He didn’t want to tell me after dark. We went to bed that night, but he just stayed by the window and watched the street. It was strange. It made me feel scared and safe all at once.

SN: What did he say in the morning?

AK: Well, first he confirmed what I already knew – that he had gone to the house. He said that he went and that by the time he got there it was dark. He told me that the streetlights were on, except in front of the house. They didn’t even have streetlights there, so the entire yard was black. No lights were on in the windows either. He said he watched it for a long while, not sure what to do, but he had the same feeling about it that I did – an utter certainty that it was somehow involved in Jeffy’s disappearance. He said he thought about calling me – we both got cellphones around that time, it was a very big event for us – but that he didn’t want to risk me trying to stop him. So he got out of the car and went to the trunk. He kept a tire iron there for emergencies. He grabbed it and walked up the stone path to the door. He said the yard was overgrown and filled with strange ornaments: old bird baths, garden gnomes, and other things. He got to the front porch and then looked around. He said that he’d never felt quiet that thick in all his life. 

SN: What did he do after that?

AK: He knocked on the door. He did it three times, using the tire iron as a knocker. Apparently it was so loud each rap on the door made him blink. But after that, nothing.

SN: Nothing?

AK: He told me he tried the door, but that it was locked. So he came home.

SN: That doesn’t sound like it took that long. Why did he take so long to come back?

AK: [Note: Mrs. King maintained a stable composure throughout the duration of our conversation. It was only upon me asking this question that she became visibly upset] I don’t know. He told me that he drove around to clear his head, but I took the car to the store the next day and there wasn’t much of a difference in the fuel. I thought about asking him, but I never worked up the courage to do so. Almost fifty years of marriage, and he never kept anything from me except that. I decided that maybe he would be allowed that secret, because I knew he wouldn’t keep it from me unless he had a good reason.

[Suddenly, and without warning, a china teacup falls out of the curio cabinet behind Mrs. King. It shatters upon impact.]

AK: Oh, dear! I’m so sorry, please excuse me while I tidy it up.

SN: There’s no need! I can take care of that for you. Where do you keep your broom?

AK: Just inside the pantry door. Thank you, dear.

[The sound of my footsteps fade as I move to the kitchen. I left the recorder on the table, unaware of what happened next. Sections rendered as inaudible reflect a severe degradation in the quality of the recording, either by feedback or static.]

AK: You didn’t have to do that. You probably scared the [inaudible] off the poor girl.

[inaudible]

AK: No, no. She won’t do that. I don’t wa–[inaudible] trouble

[inaudible]

AK: There’s no need to take that tone [inaudible]. Okay, I’ll tell her. But you stay out of it!

[The sound of my footsteps returning. There is a silence, punctuated only by the sweeping of the broom. The recording is clear again. I take my seat.]

SN: I can just take that to the trash on my way out.

AK: Oh, there’s no need, dear. You’ve done enough.

SN: You’re welcome, Mrs. King. To be honest, I don’t have any further questions for you. I know these memories are painful, and so I really appreciate your time and honesty.

AK: I’m glad I could help. I actually do have something to ask you, though. Will you make me a promise?

SN: Anything I can.

AK: If you find who did this. . . if you find who took Jeffy. . . kill the bastard. Don’t let him get away with this. Will you do that for us–for me?

SN: I–

[The recording ends here.]

I apologize for the abrupt ending, but the remainder of the conversation was no longer relevant to the academic discussion here. I want to assure the academy that despite the words of a grieving grandmother, I myself have no intent of committing any type of violence. My work here is purely in the pursuit of a greater understanding of our world. In light of this, I will be pursuing the lead Mrs. King provided.

I’m going to go check out this house myself.

End of Part Four

#16 – The Passage

I’ve never told this story before and I sure ain’t gonna tell it again, so listen up.

Your dad always used to ask me what happened to his Uncle Abraham, my brother. I can remember the first time so clearly. We were surrounded by family at one of our reunions out at the old red farmhouse where I grew up. My other brother, your great-uncle Tanner, had bought the place from my pa some fifteen years or so before. My pa was dead by this point and Tanner was working the farm across the road and the sound of the cows lowing from the barn during these reunions always told me that he’d done a pretty damn good job.

Me, I didn’t want any of that. I just wanted to live a life, find a wife, and be comfortable. Pain always comes from people wanting more than what they need. Maybe that’s the moral of this story, if there is one. Not every story needs a moral, I suppose.

I remember when your pa first found out about Abe. We were out on the back lawn which stretched from the house to the cornrows a hundred yards beyond. Tanner was frying up some burgs on the barbecue and the corn was high and thick in the August heat and your pa came sprinting out of the house, holding something in his hand. I remember I frowned when I saw it. Your grandmother, rest her soul, was next to me when this happened. I realized then what your pa had in his hands and I told her to go and see if she could help Tanner with the meat. I feel like I remember thinking at the time that I didn’t need her help, but that wasn’t true, I just didn’t want her to ask about Abe neither.

You might have figured this out already, but your pa had an old family photo in his hands. Might have been taken in the early fifties. I knew it couldn’t have been right after the war because your great-aunt Betty was in the photo and she’d been born around fifty-one or fifty-two, I forget. He held it out to me when he got close,his face all excited, and I remember kneeling down so I was at eye level with him, ‘cause he was just a boy then, and I told him in no uncertain terms not to poke around where he didn’t belong. 

I still remember the way his face fell. I felt like a right bastard for saying it the way I did but in truth I was just scared. If he asked about Abe I’d feel obliged to answer, because I knew nobody else would. Get Betty and Tanner to talk about something like that? They wouldn’t. They couldn’t. They weren’t there and I was and despite knowing this to be true I still couldn’t accept that it was my burden to bear. 

Your father didn’t take this for much of an answer, and I think he resented me after that. Most people think it takes a lot to turn a boy against his father, but I don’t think that’s true. I think all it takes is one really clear memory, and your father had his. Sure, he mighta nodded and run off to play with one of Betty’s girls, but that don’t mean that he didn’t remember. I think he did. Even up until his last days, I always had the feeling like he wanted to ask me something. Talking to him was like talking to a person who’d just entered the room and couldn’t remember what they were looking for.

I was still a coward in the end, I guess. I was working up to tell him and then I ran out of time. Getting old ain’t fair. Getting old without your kids ever getting the chance is worse. Now I got nobody left to tell except you.

So please, listen up. 

Back in the day, those Scout programs used to be a lot more adventurous. There weren’t so many lawsuits back then and kids could be trusted with all sorts of things, from matches to knives to rifles. Yup, even those. We didn’t have rifles on this trip but we did lots of shooting back home. Now don’t mistake me; I’m not saying this was a good thing. Maybe things woulda been different had they treated us like kids instead of short and stupid adults. 

The trip was up on the shores of Lake Superior. Now I don’t know if your pa or somebody else ever got the chance to take you, but Lake Superior is different than all the other Great Lakes. It don’t even feel like it’s in the same country. You don’t get the cottages the rich folks build along the shore like private dollhouses nor do you get the sandy beaches where you can dip your toes and old ladies can sit and sun in. Lake Superior is all rock, cold and deep and dark and when you slip into it the sound is like nothing because you’re nothing against all that cold deep dark water. 

Our trip had taken us a few days west of Thunder Bay, far enough away from civilization that the sky at night seemed solid, as if there was a woolen blanket held up to the brightest light you’d ever known and the stars were the holes in the fibers where the light peeked through. We were truly roughing it. Our Scout Leader had a tent big enough for eight that he carried with us in case of an emergency but the point of the trip is that we’d have to rough it, either making shelter from a few pine boughs or sleeping out on the cold rocks by the lakeside. 

One night we were camped out on the shoreline, down where the water was high and the reeds were thick. We had spotted a heron earlier in the day, this massive thing with wings like kites. It had flown off somewhere to the south, and we wondered if we could find its nest.

Let me be clear: I know this was stupid. Herons are big birds, but they’re light. I don’t think they really pose that much of a threat to humans, but the danger wasn’t really from the bird anyway. Three kids, ‘cause our friend Arthur was coming along, wandering off into the dark in the middle of nowhere. Of course we didn’t think of it that way, but I also don’t think anybody on this green Earth remembers a childhood free from stupidity. 

We waited until everyone had gone to bed. We had stayed up late, roasting marshmallows and eating some of the rehydrated food. I remember it tasted like piss with all of the flavour sucked out. Arthur had loudly proclaimed that he was going off to bed early and it was me and Abe and the Scout leader, whose name I forget. He was working something in his hands with a knife by the fire, which was growing cold and quiet. 

“Whatcha doing?” I asked.

“Whittling,” he replied, not much for words.

“What are you whittling?” asked Abe.

“Whistle,” he said, holding it up. I saw that he had carved a little hole into a tube of wood. It had been narrowed towards the end so that it would be easier to blow on.

“Neat!” said Abe. He loved things like that; little crafts that make the world feel a little more solid.

“Keep it,” said the Scout Leader, tossing it toward him. It bounced off Abe’s palm, but I caught it with my left hand before it hit the dirt. The fire murmured red and I struggled to make out his face. I passed it to Abe. I could still see well enough to see the smile. “I’m making one for everyone,” said our leader. “Between you kids and me, it’s a bit nuts that they only sent one guy on this trip. You’re good kids, but you don’t want to just be one guy if something goes wrong.”

I remember feeling awfully guilty about this, so I replied only that I thought we’d be okay. Until then, I didn’t know how wrong a person could be.

We had slipped off to bed shortly after that. We found a spot out on the smooth rock just above the water. Arthur had laid out his mat already there and could be seen in shadow on its blue face. The moon was low over the water, dyeing the lake white where the water reflected it. We saw the Scout leader rise and make his bed in the pines closer to the fire. The branches were low and the ground beneath was soft and loamy with the dead needles for a bed. Abe and I laid down our mats by Arthur and waited in total silence for the light from the fire to recede and for the Scout leader’s noises to stop. We watched one another, each laughing and gesturing for the other to be quiet. 

When at last we were sure it was time, we shuffled out of our sleeping bags and shook Arthur awake. He woke in the dark with bleary eyes and at first he didn’t want to go, but we told him he had agreed and had to now, so he pulled himself out of the sleeping bag and dressed there on the rock and by the time we were all three down by the lakeshore and the water, the moon was high and heavy.

We wandered off then south in the reeds. I had a flashlight in my pocket but didn’t want to use it unless we strayed from the lakeside. The sound of crickets following us to the left and the echoes of frogs to our right. Our eyes were beginning to adjust to the dark and I saw in that dim light a cord around Abe’s neck. I squinted and realized that he had tied the whistle on a piece of leather shoelace and hung it where it might be reached more easily. That stupid whistle filled me then with a wave of guilt so overwhelming I almost immediately called for us to return; the only thing which pressed me on then was the fact the other two were already awake and walking.

“Do you think heron eggs taste any good?” whispered Arthur. We were far from camp and there was no real point in whispering anymore, but something about hiking in the moonlight seemed to demand it.

“I mean, they’re big, right? We could probably find just a couple and bring it back to camp. Mike would probably be really razzed.”

Mike. Right, that was his name. Funny how the mind works to remember these things.

“‘Dunno,” I said. I hadn’t really considered what we’d do if we found the nest. Maybe I just assumed that we wouldn’t, or that we’d be stopped somehow. “I don’t know if it’s a good idea to bring proof back of the trip to Mike. He might be real ticked.”

“Agreed,” said Abe. I knew I could count on him. “This is a look and don’t touch kinda trip, right Arthur?”

“Sure thing,” said Arthur. “Whatever you guys say.”

We were quiet then for a while. The feeling which held on to us then was that strange feeling that happens when young boys fight; we were old enough to feel more than one emotion at a time, but not so old that we knew how to talk about it. If we were younger, we might have just had a fight. Instead, we sulked, climbing over rocks and under branches which sprang out just over the lake. The rocks began to part from the shoreline and rose in short cliffs to our left. We followed the cliffs along the pebbly shoreline, the lakewater sucking at our feet.

“Holy crap!” said Abe, breaking the silence. “Will ya look at that? There’s a cave!” He gestured for us to gather around his discovery. 

I had missed it when I walked by, but he was right; there was a cave, a cleft really, carved into the rock. The opening was narrow, a jagged vertical line torn out of the cliffside. I shone my flashlight into it and saw only dark. I heard a slow dripping sound.

“We should explore it,” said Abe.

“That’s a bad idea,” said Arthur. “We don’t know what’s in there.”

Sometimes I think about what I said next. Had I said something different, maybe things woulda been different. As time passes, you’ll forget your first kiss, your first car, your first job. You may even forget the face of your father. But the brain has a knack for holding on to the worst mistakes you ever make. 

“It’s just a cave, Arthur. You’ll find bat shit and maybe some weird mushrooms. There’s nothing to worry about in there.”

“Let’s just come back tomorrow with Mike and the group.”

“You think Mike’s gonna want to come this way? We walked for like an hour. He’s not going to want to take us off the planned trail. Plus how would we even tell him? ‘Oh hey, Mike, yeah, hope you aren’t grumpy but we want to explore this cave we found when we snuck away from camp last night.’” I shook my head. “We’d get in trouble and we wouldn’t get to see what’s in here.”

“Were there ever pirates on Lake Superior?” wondered Abe aloud. “I wonder if there’s treasure in here.”

“Let’s find out,” I said. I raised my eyebrows to Arthur, though I doubt he was able to see them in the dark. “Coming?”

“I’ll wait out here,” said Arthur. “It’s already dark enough. I’ll yell if a bear comes home or something.”

“You do that.”

So we left Arthur then at the mouth of the cave. I was bigger than Abe and so I pulled myself inside first. Though the opening was fairly wide, it narrowed as it went and I had to turn sideways to pull myself in. I felt stone on my chest and on my back, just tight enough to conjure an image of the wall pushing itself in, holding me fast. My left hand held the flashlight and it carved arcs of light as I shimmied inward, revealing trails of moss and stone along the floor. I felt a draft then against the back of my hand, so I knew that there was a chamber beyond. I passed the flashlight to my right hand, catching a glimpse of Abe’s face in the lightbeam. He was smiling. I’m glad for that memory. I used my now-free hand to grip the edge of the opening and pull myself through. My chest and back scraped against the stone before I finally popped free.

“All clear!” I shouted through the hole. I heard a scratching sound as Abe began to pull himself through. While I waited, I passed the flashlight around the chamber. Rocky icicles dangled heavy from the ceiling, revealing the source of the dripping sound I had heard. I saw a pool of water below where another was beginning to grow. I was gripped then with the sudden feeling that this was a place outside of time, where no person had ever been. It was still and quiet and dead and there was beauty and terror in this knowledge. 

“What do you see?” asked Abe from behind me.

“Rocks, mostly,” I replied.

“So no treasure, then.” I wasn’t sure why Abe had latched onto this idea of freshwater pirates so much, but then I was the boy who wanted to find a heron’s nest, so I can’t say that I was making much sense neither. 

“Not yet.”

“What about through there?” Abe’s finger entered the beam of the flashlight and pointed toward a darker part of the cave-floor. I frowned and stepped closer.

The light revealed another passage, but this one was different; where the opening to the cave had been a slash of stone carved out of the rock, this was a thin line, almost completely unbroken. It looked like a set of slightly-parted lips. I crouched down and shone the light into the hole. It showed me a smooth corridor, narrower even than the entrance to the cave. A strange heat emanated from that place, vaguely warm and wet. As I kneeled there with the flashlight pointed down the hole, I became suddenly aware of the darkness around us, scratching on the back of my neck and inside my skull. The silence was almost unbearable, though it was soon broken by Abe kicking a stone down the hole. I heard a few ricocheting bounces before a final plunk! that suggested water beyond.

“I bet that’s where they hid the treasure,” said Abe.

“Don’t be stupid,” I said. “There’s no treasure. They wouldn’t even be able to fit down there.”

“Maybe they didn’t have to. Maybe the lake used to be lower and there was another opening and they just sailed their boats in.”

“Or maybe there’s nothing down there at all.”

“Feel that heat?” he asked. “There’s gotta be something. That place is special, I can tell.”

“Well, I can’t fit down there.”

“Who said you had to?”

“No.” I shook my head. It wasn’t happening. He couldn’t go down there. Not without me. We fought like any two brothers did, but I felt a fierce protectiveness toward him and could not imagine him going down into the dark alone.

“Wasn’t asking,” said Abe. “Just hang on to my belt and let me take a look with the light.” 

“Alright. But just don’t drop it.”

Abe got down to his hands and knees and crawled forward toward the tear in the floor. He used his hands to pull himself to its lip. I shifted over and sat with my legs braced across the hol, my hand gripping his belt firmly.

“Ready?” asked Abe. The flashlight in his hand pierced the dark below us. 

I grunted out a ‘yes’, and he slipped over and into the passage. The only light now was whatever escaped past Abe. The black had gathered around me, blinding me more than any night I’d ever known. Below me in the pit, Abe scrambled forward. I heard his clothes scratching on the rocks as he pushed deeper. 

“How’s it going?” I called. 

“What?” 

“How’s it going?” I repeated, a little louder this time. I hadn’t considered that he might have a hard time hearing me with the cave walls around him to absorbt the noise. 

“It’s getting pretty tight,” he said, his voicing rebounding on the way up, becoming muddled. “But I think it widens up ahead. I’m going to push on.”

“Don’t be stupid,” I warned. “Don’t try something that won’t work.”

“You guys alright in there?” Arthur’s voice, from outside the cave. I turned back and yelled that we were. My voice drowned out Arthur’s echoing in that tiny chamber.  

“What was that?” called Abe from below.

“Not talking to you! Talking to Arthur!”

“What?”

And then it happened. Abe must’ve tried to turn or something to hear me better, because I heard a sharp crack as the rock gave way, and the sound of him slipping deeper. A brief twisting turn of the light told me about the loss of the flashlight. I peered into the passage and saw nothing; not even a silhouette of my brother.

“Abe! Abe! Are you there?”

The longest moment of my life stretched out ahead of me. Then there was a groan of pain, and an answer: “I’m here. I think I’m stuck.”

“What?”

“I can’t move. The rock’s pressing really tight against my legs and chest and I can’t turn around to climb out.”

“Can you see the light?”

A pause. “I see where it fell, but I can’t reach it. The tunnel kind of curves, I don’t know if you can see it.”

“I’m gonna come down to get you.”

“No! You’ll just get stuck, too.”

I felt my heart beginning to race. Had the cave always been this hot, or were we simply running out of air? I knew that was impossible, that there was an entrance, but none of this seemed real. I had the sense that this was all happening to someone else, and I was far away, home in my bed. “I’m gonna get Arthur,” I finally said. “I’ll send him back to camp, he can get help.” I pushed away the part of my brain that told me we were still days out from any equipment that could help my brother. I had to believe there was a chance. “I’ll be right back,” I cried, running into the black, toward the entrance of the cave; it was the only place where there was any speck of light, even if it was the blue of the late night. I crawled back through the entrance far enough to poke my head out. The night air was impossibly fresh after the stillness of the cave, but it only reminded me that Abe was still inside. 

I spotted Arthur sitting against the rock, biting his nails. “Arthur!” I cried, startling him. He clambered to his feet.

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Abe’s stuck. You gotta go get help!”

“We’re gonna get in trouble,” he whined.

“It don’t matter now. We have to help my brother. Please, go as quickly as you can!”

To his credit, Arthur didn’t argue any further. He raced off into the night, heading northwards along the lakeshore. I took one last breath of the fresh air, then disappeared back into the cave. It was blacker now, my eyes having re-adjusted to the moonlit night. I felt along the cave floor with my hands and crawled to the edge of the pit.

“Abe?” I cried. “Abe? You there?”

His voice came up to me in a whisper. “You have to be quiet,” he said, voice trembling.

“What? Why?”

“Because there’s someone else down here.”

It took me a moment for the words to settle in. My mind wrapped itself around them, trying to figure out some possibility where that combination of ideas made sense. “That’s impossible,” I said.

“I saw his face,” whispered Abe. “I saw his face and I think he saw me too.”

“You’re just scared,” I said. “Imagining things.” I wasn’t sure whether I was telling him or telling myself. 

“I hear him, even now. Footsteps. You gotta help me get out of here. See if you can fit in or grab my belt again or something.”

“I’ll see what I can–” I began, but then I heard it. The soft sound of feet slapping against stone, coming from below. Something inside of me grew very cold. 

“It’s getting hot down here,” Abe whispered. “Hotter and hotter and my head is getting heavy. Please, you have to hurry. Please, help me!” His voice was above a whisper now. The footsteps stopped. Then they picked up again, quicker, slapping against the stone. Abe was now fully shouting. “I see him! He’s coming back! Oh god where are his EYES–”

I didn’t hear the rest. I tore out of there, pulling myself through the exit and out into the night air. The sky was beginning to lighten past the trees to the east. I raced away from the cave entrance, running several hundred metres north. I finally stopped by a crop of reeds, my chest rising and falling as I laid back against the rock. Some kind of fir tree soared over my head. In its highest branches, I saw a nest.

There’s nothing else left to tell after that. Arthur returned a couple of hours later with Mike and the rest of the group. Mike went into the cave, and soon returned, saying that Abe wasn’t talking, but that he had blown his whistle, so he must be okay. Clearly relieved, Mike said he was going to call for help and so he climbed a tree, braver than I had ever been.  He was able to get a signal and local authorities promised to come to us as quickly as they could. Mike went back in the cave after that, but never heard anything else.

They came a day-and-a-half later on horseback, with water, food, and ropes. It didn’t matter. With no answer from Abe, it was clear he was gone. A heart attack from the inverted position was mostly likely, they said. The body ain’t meant to be upside-down for that long. Later, a crew took explosives to the cave and sealed the entire entrance.

In a twisted way, I hope they’re right about what happened to Abe. See, I was an even bigger coward than I let on; I never even told them about the face that Abe said he saw. I wanted them to close it off. I wanted them to make sure that whoever was down there with him never got out. I tell myself it’s what Abe would have wanted, but I don’t think it is. He would have wanted to be alive, to live a life full of adventure and happiness.

But then again, this story was never about him getting what he wanted.