#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.

#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.

#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. 

#15 – What Dreams May Come

November 19th, 2021

I don’t really know what to write here, if I’m being honest. This was the therapist’s idea, but it doesn’t make much sense to me. The problem isn’t that I can’t remember the dreams; it’s that I remember them too clearly.

Don’t get me wrong – I get the basic concept. If I write down my dreams and when they happen, maybe I can find out what causes them and then change that behaviour. But does that mean I should treat this like a food diary? Should I write cream cheese and a bagel? Do I have to specify that it was herb and garlic cream cheese, or is the general category of food broad enough? What if I started to eat Flintstones chewables? Does that count as food? What about how many glasses of water? This is supposed to be a dream diary, not an acid reflux journal, and here I am agonizing over whether my decision to veer from God’s chosen Philadelphia flavour is the source of my misery.

As you can see, I’m very tired. So tired that I’m writing as if anyone other than me is going to read this. But just making this diary purely narration makes me feel like I’m jerking off on the page, so I’m going to pretend like I’m writing to somebody standing next to me. But let me stress – if you’re a super hot girl and you’re reading this, this is all fiction. In fact, maybe don’t read this at all. Pretend everything below is just a gym diary.

Bench Press – 8 x 175
Squats – 8 x 250 
Deadlift – 8 x 300 

Okay, now that the hotties are pacified, let’s break down what’s happening: I’ve had bad dreams lately. Really bad dreams. The kind that make you wake gasping like it’s a cartoon except instead of Bart Simpson screaming about Sideshow Bob it’s you, and it’s dark, and there’s no joke at all, it’s just you and the cold chill of sweat on your skin and if you’re lucky there’s moonlight filtering through the window cutting cold white lines into the wall, but if you’re unlucky you wake into the dead black and you wonder for a moment whether this is what hell looks like. 

You ever had dreams like this? If you have, give me a shout. Doctors are mystified. The sleep therapists at first thought it was sleep paralysis, a condition where people wake earlier than the body does. The dreaming mind begins to affect the waking self. Sufferers are immobilised, and they often report seeing or hearing strange–sometimes described as demonic–sounds, the rushing of wind or water, or a great weight on their chest. But they didn’t find any evidence of that. In fact, when I went into the therapist’s office, I slept the best I had in months. The bed was cold and lumpy and the sheets were thin and rough and woolen, but it didn’t matter because for the first time in forever, my mind was at peace. The doctors seized on this and suggested it was a problem with my bed, so one week and $1300 later, I had a new bed, pillows, and sheets.

It didn’t help. Within a week, the mattress was dyed a cigarette-smoke yellow from the amount of sweat pouring into it. I went back to the therapist, but this was all they had for me. A dream diary. I’m pissed about it. It doesn’t mean that I don’t get it – they didn’t find anything on the MRIs or any kind of unusual activity when they monitored me in their office. But I still can’t help feeling like they’ve given up.

I’m writing this before bed. I have a small desk in the corner of my room. The ceiling of my room slants down, the roof just outside, and I have a window inset opposite the bed, facing east. The sun shines through wonderfully in the morning but it means that I need to turn the lights on pretty early in the evening. I don’t like that. Dark means I have to sleep, and I can’t think of anything I want to do less.

November 20th, 2021

Last night was no different. 

It’s just past eight in the morning. I laid in bed once the sun had come up to see if maybe I’d fall back asleep, but any time I try to sleep in the daytime, my mind begins to race. I’ve tried tea, weed, melatonin, pills – none of it works. It’s not like it really matters. Work makes that unsustainable anyway. I have to be awake in the daytime.

I suppose I should actually talk about the dream. Maybe the therapist can glean something from my recollection.

It might sound pretty innocuous at first blush. I remember being in bed, lying on my stomach. My left leg was hitched up to my chest as if I was running, while my right leg was straight out. I remember my hair sticking up all brown and spiky in the moonlight. My perspective was next to the bed. I was looking down at myself. I watched myself turn and shift. I saw and heard everything; the nothing mumbles of sleep; the drool; the shifting of positions. I watched it all.

You know how when you’re asleep, you don’t have a proper perception of time? In your half-waking state, you might have some vague sense of whether it’s morning or night thanks to your circadian rhythm, but when you’re truly asleep, you might as well be dead. In a dream, you can cross the world in seconds. You can teleport from room to room. Time is optional in the dreamscape. Or at least, so I thought. I felt as though I watched myself for seven and a half hours, give or take a few minutes. I could see the display on my phone shining dully in the dark. I saw the minutes pass. The hours. When the display flipped over to 07:00, the alarm went off and I woke up, feeling exhausted. I realized after that the damndest thing about it all is that the light never changed in the dream. It’s late in the fall and it’s dark early in the morning, but that doesn’t matter. The sky still turns from black to blue in the end.

In the dream, it was only black. 

November 25th, 2021

Therapist didn’t like that I stopped writing after the entry a few days ago. He was fascinated by everything I wrote above, especially my sense of chronology, but it wasn’t enough.  He said that if I wanted to fix this problem, I should start taking it seriously – as if the guy getting paid $150/hour is motivated to help me fix this problem. Fucker.

 So here I am, writing again. Not for him, though. This is for wholly selfish reasons. I was out with Sid and Hodor last night. No, his name’s not really Hodor. But he’s a big bastard who looks like the guy from Game of Thrones, so what else are we gonna call him – Mitchell? Picture the guy on the show and tell me if he’s a Mitchell.

Exactly.

The bar was some dive in the part of town that people never go to on purpose. You know the ones. The kind of places where windows are either boarded up or broken in; the places where graffiti is the only paint job ever seen. The bar itself had some nondescript name like Jake’s where the rest of the name had worn off the sign and the owners were either too cheap or too lazy to get it redone. It was the type of dive where the walls are papered with coasters and Coors Light logos and where the tables are etched with knife-marks and wobble ferociously.

We shotgunned a couple of beers in the parking lot using the Swiss Army knife that Sid’s grandpa had brought back from Korea, so we were already pretty loaded when we went inside. We walked in and the music hit us in a wave of Gen X angst, the air cloudy with smoke even though smoking indoors has been outlawed in the province for a decade and a half. The rest of it is kind of a blur of noise and light and beer. I’m sure my lack of sleep didn’t help. But before I knew it, I had this girl in my lap and her hands were around me and I honestly couldn’t even tell you what she looked like, except that she was blond and had tattoos all over her chest and down to her tits, and that she said her name was Chantal, and, even then, drunk and stupid and tired beyond all belief despite the bump of coke she’d given me off her nail, I knew that was a lie. 

She whispered something in my ear about taking her home. I almost did it, too. But then a vision came to me of freaking out in the middle of the night and scaring the shit out of this poor girl, or worse yet looking like a total schizo, so I shook my head and said that I actually had a shift starting in an hour, which was a pretty crappy lie and I think she knew it, because she stumbled off pretty much right after that.

Sid and Hodor gave me shit on the way home but they still split the Uber with me and I waved good night, the music still pounding in my ears, already dreading the utter silence waiting for me in my bedroom.

In the end, I was glad I didn’t take her home. Last night was maybe the worst dream yet. I don’t know whether it was the beer or the coke, but all I remember is fear and waking in a pool of my own shit. 

I need help, man. This isn’t fair.

November 26th, 2021

I called in sick to work yesterday. There’s something about soiling yourself as an adult for non-medical reasons that really humbles you. I’m gonna lay off the booze and drugs for a while. I already texted Sid and Hodor to tell them I felt pretty fucked up yesterday, and they were totally fine with it. They’re good guys. 

The rest of the day has basically left my memory. I’m not sure if it was ever there. Is it possible for events to just pass over us without ever sticking in our minds? Is it fatigue doing this to me, or something else? All I know is that I tried to sleep and I couldn’t. I watched bad movies and ate bad food and thought about going for a walk but the day was grey and rainy in that oppressive way November can be and so the thought of wandering around in the dark was too much for me. I turned on every light in the apartment and found some records my dad gave me before he died. Their sleeves were only plastic and the labels had worn off but I played them just so it wasn’t so damn quiet.

I think I’ve begun to be afraid of night. Not of the dark, because I’ve always just seen dark as the absence of light, but of night itself. Months of associating nighttime with terror can do that to you.

In case you’re wondering, I have tried to stay awake through the night so that fatigue takes me during the day. It’s not really practical; like I said, I have to work. Even when I don’t, it doesn’t help. I’m thirty-three. I can’t stay up all night like I used to. Something in me just clicks, and I fall asleep in the bed or the chair or on the couch, and the dreams come all the same. Last night was no different.

This time I was in bed. The room was black and the moon was starting to wane and so it wasn’t as bright as it was even a week ago. It was still bright enough to see, though; gathered around my bed were humanoid figures of differing heights. Some were no taller than a twelve-year-old, while others were taller than me. The light hid their features and so they just stood there for hours, shadows given weight.

I remember wanting to cry and scream and ask them what they wanted, but I couldn’t. My mouth wouldn’t work. Only my eyes. 

November 28th, 2021. 

You’re not going to believe this, but I actually slept through the night. And it wasn’t just a sleep, but a good sleep. Like a full eight, almost nine hours. I couldn’t believe it. I actually teared up when I woke up. I don’t think people realize what true fatigue is; I know people working morning shifts after a bender or students staying up late to study might think they know, but they don’t. Theirs is a temporary pain, one that’s swiftly resolved after the shift or the exam is finished. True fatigue is painful. The body acquires a heaviness to it and everything feels ten times as difficult. Beyond that, the mind unravels; on my worst days, I was convinced I saw flitting shadows in the corner of my eye, as if something was always trying to escape my view. 

Of course it’s not enough. You can’t catch up on months of sleep in a single night. But to be even temporarily freed is a relief beyond description. 

Doc’s gonna be pissed I didn’t write an entry for yesterday, considering this success, but I really didn’t get up to much. I just kind of bummed around the apartment. Ordered a pizza. Watched an overlong Netflix show. I can’t think of anything I did that was different, but whatever it is, I’m glad I did it.

November 29th, 2021

Forget everything I said above. Had one of the worst nights of my life last night. Tossed and turned and sweated and tried not to look at the walls. It’s even darker now at night. Winter’s coming and the clouds gather round heavy with snow but it’s not falling. Why isn’t it falling? If it fell, at least the light from the street would reflect and fill the room with a cool white glow like Christmas Eve. Everyone feels safe in their bed on Christmas Eve. 

I don’t even remember the dream. Did I even have one? All I know is that I woke with bile rising in my throat. I tried to throw the sheets back but my legs were tangled and I fell when getting out of the bed and so I had to pull the short plastic garbage can from next to my nightstand and I hurled in it. That’s right, I fucking had a nightmare so bad I puked, and my whole body seemed to shake with the effort, and just when it was almost done I felt something rising in my throat, something solid, not food, no no not food, something more, and there was a brief moment of terror when I worried it would get lodged in my throat on the way out but instead it nicked against my tooth as if I’d bitten down on a fork and then I heard a thud and I fumbled for the light and looking down into the pool of ochre waste I saw a small metal orb, ringed with a black band. 

I don’t even know what to say. What’s wrong with me? What do I do with this metal thing? Is it some kind of ballbearing that I swallowed in my sleep? What else could it be?

I’m crying. I haven’t cried in forever. I just feel so fucking hopeless right now.

December 2nd, 2021

Moon is almost gone now. Scared of what will happen when its gone but its good that its gone because then it will come back. chosen not to sleep. Sleep is death right now and i want to live

Therapist and Sid and Hodor have all tried calling. Dont need to talk to them. Dont want to sound crazy. Im sane just tired just sad just scared. Scared scared scared. That word doesnt really sum it up, does it? True fear grabs you by the throat and the heart and the balls and squeezes and doesnt let go. It goes inside you and makes you its bitch and your body almost wants to give in because at least then the fear would stop but i wont give in i wont i wont

Im working on a theory where my dreams of the visitors well i think those visitors might be real. I know it sounds crazy but i took the metal ball to the university to test, i bribed some student with a hundred bucks and they ran it through something called a spectrograph and the damned fucking thing couldnt tell what material the ball was made out of. That’s not possible right? Im not a scientist just a guy who wants to sleep but even still i know that the periodic table is supposed to be pretty much a done deal

So now im just waiting for the shadowpeople to come back. i asked sid if his grandpa had a pistol or anything from his collection that he left for sid but sid said no he didnt think that was a good idea so now im just sitting in my apartment with all the lights on mmm such a delicious yellow and ive got a kitchen knife in my hand like im michael myers no not austin powers michael myers the other one yeah baby yeah

im gonna kill these fuckers so i can finally sleep

december fourth twenty twenty one

no guests yet no surprises just me and the knife and the room and the walls waiting. i realized that maybe the problem is that the lights are all on maybe theyre afraid of the light like we are of the dark and tonight is a night with no moon in december and so it will be cold and dark and all of the people in all of the houses will be asleep except me ill be awake and it will be so dark they wont even be able to see my knife theyll only feel it sharp sharp

there was knocking on the door today and it lasted for a while but i didnt answer it they dont use the door and theres nobody else i need to see right now just my friends the shadowpeople why arent they coming why havent they come dont they want to see me. i know theyd come if i slept but im not gonna sleep i dont need to sleep nope not one wink

december?

now i lay me down to sleep i pray the LORD my soul to keep

???

i see them now i see them i see them 

December 17, 2021

I’ve been sleeping much better lately. I know it does not seem that way from the notes above, but those were the ramblings of a very tired, very sick man. Luckily, I was able to convince myself that there were no “shadow-people” in the dark. It is amazing what the mind can do to you when you are asleep.

The doctor has been very happy with my progress, too. He still would like me to continue on a course of medication for some time, but I suspect I will not need it much longer. I went out for drinks with Sidney and Mitchell the other night and both seemed very happy to see me out and about. Apparently they were quite worried, which I suppose is understandable.

Do not worry, guys. I’m all better now.

#12 – Pieces

This story is Part Three of an ongoing narrative. Parts One and Two are available through the preceding links.

It’s taken me a long time, but the pieces are finally starting to come together.

When you look at the evidence, it makes sense why nobody’s been able to do it before. He strikes randomly, across the continent. The only real correlation seems to be in the victim profile; a child, somewhere between the ages of six and fourteen, disappears without a trace. They are often described as precocious. Perhaps this is a tool he uses to draw them in. If they aren’t afraid of strangers, maybe they would miss the danger until it was too late.

I’m going to be presenting this to my board soon. I need to finish the dissertation if I’m to defend. God knows I have an uphill battle already with this subject, so I really have to lay all the cards on the table.

Yes, even you. I’ll need to tell them about you, too. 

April 1933 – Detroit, MI

The precise date of this abduction is unknown, but it’s the earliest missing-child report that bears any resemblance to those concerning the so-called “Bric-a-Brac Man.” I include it here for the sake of being comprehensive; the story is slim and all witnesses are long-dead. I’ve tried reaching out to families, but with little luck. I’m not surprised. If the witnesses are like the others, they wouldn’t have wanted to tell. To tell is to remember, and most would rather forget.

The abducted, Arthur Wells, was a child labourer at an auto plant which abutted the Detroit River. He worked on the line and was largely responsible for the kind of work which benefited from his slim child’s fingers or his short stature. While little is known about Wells’s homelife, one can likely assume that he was as impoverished as any other child labourer in that era; families only sent their children to work if there were no alternatives. 

Reports from his colleagues gathered on the day of the disappearance suggest that Wells was a bright young boy who had become “one of the men,” as it were, frequently spending time with them chatting during their scant reprieves. Despite how deplorable the fact of his working might appear in hindsight, Wells himself allegedly enjoyed the work; He was often heard remarking that twenty cents an hour did far more good than a few words in Latin ever would. His work did not go unnoticed and management indicated that they had earmarked his name for supervisory work once he had matured further. 

While the fact a child labourer was considered for promotion is in itself notable, we should not forget that the employment of children was a brutal, ill-paying practice. As much as Wells allegedly professed his satisfaction with the work, it should not occlude the fact that he would regularly walk the length of the riverside path, looking for spare coins or begging for scraps of food from street-side vendors. 

According to one colleague, Reginald Mills, this was a typical part of the boy’s routine: “Yeah, we always saw him taking that way home. I think he lived somewhere south of the plant, so he’d wander all down the length of the river until the path ended, trying to get whatever he could. Even in the winter, he’d trudge through the snow, and the wind would come up wicked from the river, and yet still he’d walk home that way. I’m not really sure what it was about. Poor fellow. I wish we could say that we’d have been able to spare some change for the streetcar, but that’d be a lie. We needed it just as much as he did.”

It was during one of these walks that Arthur Wells disappeared. By all accounts, it was a sunny day in April, the kind of day where the world feels as though it’s begun to wake but has yet to fully wipe the sleep from its eyes. The precise day has been forgotten, and efforts to recover a report from the Detroit police have been stymied; most likely no report exists at all. Boys died all of the time at manufacturing plants. What more would they care if a boy died on his way home from one?

The last sighting of Arthur Wells was by one of his co-workers, Horace Thompson. Thompson described seeing Wells walking away from the plant with a tall man in a black bowler hat, with a black coat. Thompson, evidently an aspiring poet, described the man’s appearance as an “inkstain on a clean sheet of paper.” Thompson later expressed regret for not calling the police sooner, admitting that he had thought it odd that Wells was travelling north, rather than his usual southerly direction. 

The police were not called until the following morning, when Wells failed to clock in to his shift. The line supervisors, cognizant of Wells’s typical timeliness, afforded him an additional ten minutes’ grace. When Wells did not show, they paid no mind, striking him from the rolls and hiring one of the men who regularly gathered outside the plant’s doors. It was his colleagues who later called the police, pooling their money to do so after the day’s shift had ended. 

The police, of course, found nothing.

While the evidence for Wells’s abduction by the Bric-a-Brac Man is thin, it cannot be set aside. His story deserves to be told, and his memory deserves answers.

November 24, 1963 – Albany, NY

As I write these stories, the reader might be inclined to cast judgment on the parents of these children. While the impulse is perhaps understandable, it should not be indulged; the simple and tragic truth of parenthood is that it is impossible to always be watching your children. For most children, that simply results in a bruised elbow, a skinned knee, or perhaps a few stitches. 

But not always.

Few would blame Martha Brixley, mother of Joanna, for her attention to the television on November 24th, 1963. President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas two days prior, and the world was watching the birth of the modern infotainment cycle. 

It was the middle of the day, and Martha’s husband, Lyle, was at work. She had just prepared lunch for her and her daughter, and both had sat down with a glass of lemonade and their sandwiches to watch the transfer of President Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, from Dallas police headquarters. 

There was a knock on the door. Distracted by the television, Martha asked Joanna to answer the door. Joanna leaped up; the news wasn’t half as interesting to her as it was to her mother, and she’d been practicing speaking to strangers more. Mr. Hardy, the butcher, was particularly kind to her, offering her strips of jerky whenever she remembered to address him as “sir.”

The door opened and Martha craned her head, her eyes leaping back and forth from the hallway to the television. Oswald was being escorted from the police station, detectives on either side of him. Oswald was slight and short. It seemed impossible for him to have killed a man with Kennedy’s presence.
Martha could hear Joanna speaking to somebody. The other person had a high voice that seemed to wheeze on the vowels. She couldn’t make out much of the conversation, so she decided to get up and see who was at the door.

On the television, a man rushed from the crowd. A bang was heard. Pandemonium. Bodies rushing in, filling the space. A brief glimpse of Oswald’s boyish face contorted in agony. A voice repeating, “he’s been shot! Lee Oswald’s been shot!” and then Martha was in her chair again, her hands over her mouth. There was a low moaning sound. She realized after a moment that it was her.

Martha watched the coverage for another ten minutes before she realized that the door was still open. She called her daughter’s name, but there was no answer. The first needle of worry. She got to her feet and went to the door, which laid wide open. The street outside was sunny and stark and a car drove by, one of the new Plymouths that Lyle had always talked about getting. 

There was no sign of Joanna. According to Martha, the only sign of anybody ever having been there was a faint smell of chocolate and oranges.

In this story, it might be easy to blame Martha, to ask why she didn’t better watch over her daughter. I challenge those parents to ask themselves whether they’ve ever let their children do anything alone. If the answer is “yes,” then I ask that you send your blame elsewhere. The tragedy of Joanna Brixley is one of circumstance, of bad timing. Children will always be vulnerable, so long as the Bric-a-Brac Man is out there.

In closing, it’s worth noting that Martha Brixley is now eighty-nine, living in a nursing home in [redacted], NY. She is suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s and asks every day when her daughter is coming to visit.

August 12th, 1974 – Aspen, CO

What little information I have about this case is gathered from police reports, interviews, and eyewitness testimony. It was perhaps the most well-documented sighting of the Bric-a-Brac Man prior to the events of the December 2016 abduction.

Aspen, Colorado, is a resort town. While it has since diversified its activities to appeal to summer vacationers as well, business in 1974 was much more seasonal. Residents sought new opportunities to earn an income in the off-season. For Roy Anderson, hosting a birthday party for his son, Wesley, was a perfect opportunity to showcase his new business; he had recently made a sizeable investment in the then-new technology of inflatable bounce-houses (or bouncy castles, if you prefer), and his first piece of equipment was due to arrive three days before his son’s birthday. 

When Roy told Wesley the news, his son was overjoyed. Roy’s wife, Denise, was more skeptical of this new investment, but she knew the summers were hard for seasonal workers and was willing to take a risk in order to help Wesley go to college. Roy had purchased the equipment using his marine stipend from the war in Vietnam. Since he seldom talked about the war, Denise had decided that it was best to let him decide where the money should be allocated. 

In anticipation of the day, Denise and Wesley collaborated on fliers that would be distributed to his classmates. Roy passed them out downtown as well; he wanted as many people as possible to attend his son’s birthday. While this may sound careless to a modern reader, it is important to remember that, for the residents of a small-town in a quiet season, it seemed impossible that anything could go wrong.

The day approached. Wesley, a small but bright boy, began to have trouble sleeping. He would reliably knock on his parents’ door every night, asking to be let in. This was a habit he had enjoyed as a younger boy, but Roy and Denise had worked together to encourage independence in the last year. While they feared relenting might cause him to backslide, they were willing to accommodate it in the days leading up to his birthday, figuring that nerves were probably the reason anyway. 

When August 12th finally dawned, it finally became clear to Roy that he had managed, perhaps unintentionally, to organize a small fair. Three of his neighbours arrived that morning with their barbecues, ready to help him grill for the guests. Denise welcomed them with freshly-squeezed orange juice, while Wesley practically bounced with excitement and anticipation. Outside, the bounce-house laid flat like a flayed animal on the lawn. A corrugated tube curled away from it towards the pump. 

The guests were due to arrive at one. The smell of hot dogs and hamburgers was heavy in the air. Balloons and games were set up across the yard, framing the bounce-house in the centre. Some people showed up early, but the bulk of the guests, invited or not, began to arrive shortly after the event began.

Roy and Denise Anderson would later recount that everything was going quite well at the beginning of the afternoon. The children were remarkably well-behaved, and the adults were able to maintain a quiet simmering drunkenness; enough to enjoy themselves, but not so much that it would cause problems.

Still, the problems came.

The first inkling that something had gone wrong came later in the day, in the sleepier hours of the afternoon. In truth, Roy had expected that people would begin to file out at some point; children have relatively short attention spans, and feeding them hot dogs and hamburgers is a surefire way to hasten boredom. But there was no sign of this. People continued to file in, even as the day grew long and the sun began to sink towards the western ridge. 

No one has ever been able to pinpoint when it started, but everyone knew once it had begun.

Voices rose from the back lawn of the Anderson house. It was the kind of low angry din of a dissatisfied crowd, a simmering, palpable tension. Shouting began, and Roy described seeing the first child get pushed out of the line and onto the grass, smacking his head against the earth. 

“I was across the lawn before I knew it,” said Roy. “I didn’t think, I didn’t stop, hell, I don’t even know if I really processed it, I was just out there.” In the recording, he wiped his eyes. “Sometimes I wonder if I could have been faster. Or if I should have invited less people. I know I can’t change anything about what happened, but it doesn’t stop me from wanting to.”

The children in the line continued to push. Roy caught some of what they were yelling; they were imploring “that guy in black” to get off the bounce-house, saying that he’d already had his turn. Roy described looking then toward the inflatable and catching a blurry smear of black leaping between the rainbow of clothing the children wore.

There was a sudden bang, loud enough to echo between the houses. Several of the men, Roy included, dropped to the ground, taken over by either instinct or trauma. The children screamed, but few of them actually fell to the ground too. Most even kept their places in line. The men slowly began to pick themselves up. Roy later said that he remembers little of what came next, only that he rose from the ground to the sounds of children complaining. He turned to look at the bounce-house and saw that it was slowly deflating. One piece connected to another. 

“I started shouting ‘get off the ride, get off the ride!” said Roy. “I don’t know if anyone could hear me. There were so many voices . . . everything was confused then.”

“I was watching from the kitchen window,” said Denise. “I figured that Roy had everything under control, but once I saw those castle walls start to fall in, I knew there would be a problem. I ran out into the yard to help.”

“By the time she got out, the castle was almost totally deflated. They later said that there was a significant rupture in the material of the structure. But the damndest thing about it was that it was in the middle of nowhere, materially speaking. It wasn’t on a seam or anything. It just burst.”

“Roy blames himself,” admitted Denise. “Everybody knows he shouldn’t, but he does. It was his investment, he says. His responsibility. How was he to know what would happen to those kids?”

The ultimate toll of that day was five deaths and three presumed deaths. Police have few answers. For the five confirmed deaths, the coroner was able to determine that the weight of the early bounce-house material smothered the riders as the structure collapsed. Firefighters were slow to the scene, as the adults first tried to rescue the children themselves before calling the authorities. 

Still unexplained are the three missing, including Wesley Anderson. No bodies were ever recovered from the structure. No sign of any of the children was ever found. The only clue is the report of the man in black, bouncing along with the rest of the children, but there was no sign of him, either.

The preceding interviews were conducted separately while a liability investigation was underway. Roy was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing, choosing afterward to immediately launch litigation against the manufacturer of the bounce-house. While the suit was in progress, he and Denise gave one final interview on the subject.

“I can accept I’m going to hell,” said Roy, “Even if I didn’t make the damn castle, I brought all of those people together. Should I have supervised things better? Made sure rules were clear about what you could bring onto the ride? These thoughts run through my head endlessly, but none of them have any answers.”

“Who was the man?” asked Denise. “Lots of people describe a man in black on the ride, but nobody remembers seeing him off the ride. Certainly he doesn’t sound like anyone I knew, and there’s nobody in the pictures.”

“You’ll have to excuse my wife,” said Roy. “We all want to know what happened to the missing boys. Trying to conjure another missing person isn’t helping.”

Denise looked at her husband for a long moment. There is a palpable tension to this interview, even forty years later. 

“It might help find Wesley,” she said. “It might help find Wesley.”

December 25th, 1987 – Calgary, AB

I never wanted to tell this story. I wish it was somebody else’s story to tell. But how could I exclude it? It’s what started me on this path.

Read the story of a girl–my sister–who disappeared from her own bedroom on a wintry night, and you’ll see I never had a choice at all.


July 12-15th, 2003 – New Jersey Pine Barrens

In the southern part of the state of New Jersey, there is a huge expanse of land known as the Pine Barrens or the Pinelands. Most famous now perhaps for an episode of HBO’s The Sopranos, the terrain is rugged and tough, a gnarling landscape of coastal forest, sandy soil, and a bizarre ecology unlike that in the rest of the north-eastern United States.

In the summer of 2003, a boys’ leadership-training group went out on a multi-day camping trip to the Pine Barrens. Their guide, Peter Mellen, was an experienced outdoorsman who had completed expeditions of Kilimanjaro and Denali. At the time of his death, he was saving money for a trip to Everest. 

The boys themselves – Sawyer, William, and Thom – were all from underprivileged homes. This was their first time camping, and from all accounts, each was incredibly excited for the opportunity.

Their disappearance was first noted when Peter failed to drop the boys off at the agreed-upon time outside their school in Manahwakin, NJ. As this took place but a few years before cellphones became common-place, the families had little choice but to wait. Assuming that traffic was the cause, the families allowed another two hours. When nobody arrived, they called the police.

State troopers and forest rangers began an immediate canvassing of the Pine Barrens. Peter had provided a detailed map of where they planned on hiking, along with the points where he anticipated camping on each day. He had left this with program directors in case of an emergency.

Following the map found nothing. All of the spots marked on the maps showed no signs of having been used as a campsite in recent weeks. Bewildered, the troopers and rangers expanded elsewhere. Peter Mellen was listed as a prime suspect in the abduction of the three young boys, and a special episode of America’s Most Wanted was aired concerning the disappearance. Many calls and tips came, but no answers.

The search continued until October, when they found a man’s decomposing skeleton in a small cave, sheltered at the mouth of a ravine. Forensic work revealed two things: that the deceased was Peter Mellen, and that the cause of death had been a catastrophic inversion of the ribcage. 

In other words: somebody opened the ribcage.

The gruesome scene provided few answers to the authorities. There were signs of a camp and of the boys, but nothing that provided a trail. People began to speculate as to what might have happened. Hardliners against Peter Mellen argued that he had tried to abduct or otherwise harm the boys, and they had rebelled, killing their attacker. Once this was done, guilt or fear or panic drove them into the woods, where they may have fallen victim to one of the bogs scattered throughout the Barrens. Their bodies might never be recovered, they argued. 

Others, myself included, maintain Peter’s innocence. There is a great distance between murder in self-defense and the brutality of Peter’s death. Once one accepts that Peter was not killed by the boys, the questions change: Why were they so far from their planned path? What killed Peter Mellen? Were the three boys present at the time of his death, or did they flee beforehand?

Answers are unlikely to come. I was reluctant to even include this case – the modus operandi is so different from the known patterns of the Bric-a-Brac Man. The children were not alone, nor were they even isolated from the adult. The attack was in the middle-of-nowhere, not in an urban area. Somebody was physically harmed, but not abducted. Was it because he was an adult, or did he try to defend the boys?

Despite these discrepancies, I am certain that it was the Bric-a-Brac Man. I suggested it to the authorities, but they took me about as seriously as I fear my department will. But who else would have dressed up Peter Mellen that way? Who else would have placed a bowler hat on his head and hung a jangling silver bauble from each protruding rib? 

The answers might be few, but they are there. You just have to be willing to accept them.

December 25th, 2016 – Kingston, ON

This is probably the most famous disappearance, as well as the most recent, and so I will limit the amount of ink I spill on the subject. Readers wishing to learn more about this may read my write-up here

On Christmas Day 2016, a young boy named Jeff King was abducted from his bedroom by an unknown person. He had been playing with a Polaroid camera he’d been gifted earlier that same day. The only known people in the house at the time of the disappearance were his grandparents and his mother. His grandparents refuse to say anything further on the matter. His mother has been institutionalized.

I have been unable to find any of the grandparents’ comments on that day, other than the simple acknowledgement that they were asleep at the time of the disappearance. His mother has said nothing since that day other than “picture,” a likely reference to the Polaroid photo found on the floor of Jeff’s bedroom.

It shows a teary-eyed young boy forcing a grin. Next to him is a man with a patchwork face, eyes affixed to the boy.

Looking at this photo, I see the face I’ve hunted for so long. There’s no question in my mind. There never was, and yet I still feel relieved. I’m not crazy. I have to wonder, though; did he mean to leave the photo, or was this a mistake? Is he toying with the authorities, or is this and the murder of Peter Mellen proof that he’s making mistakes?

I have to keep hunting.

The Bric-a-Brac Man is out there. I am certain there are more yet more cases to be found, but I can determine no consistent pattern to the abductions. What I do know is that the time for research has passed. The Bric-a-Brac Man is growing bolder. He has resorted to violence and mockery in recent years. He considers himself untouchable, untraceable. 

My work will prove otherwise. I have come to Queens University in Kingston, ON – the site of the most recent abduction. I am pursuing a PhD in Parapsychology, a disrespected field that has made me the laughingstock of my department. I don’t care. My search for the Bric-a-Brac Man is the centerpiece of my work here. Nothing else matters, so long as I find him.

I’ve become convinced that the time has come to take action. I have a plan in place – it’s risky, but every day I wait is another day he could strike. I’m not willing to condemn any more families to the fate mine suffered.

We always tell children that monsters aren’t real. It’s my duty to make it so.

I owe Katie that much. 

Part Three of Twelve

#8 – Nightlight

This story is the second part of a longer tale. For the first part, click here.

You lie in your bed at the end of a busy Christmas day and think that this feeling must be one of the most sublime feelings a human can feel. You do not have the words to express this sentiment. The room is dark save for the light of the moon reflecting through slitted blinds from the painfully white snow which lies quiet and unbroken underneath the ash trees in the backyard. When Christmas was white, long ago. Downstairs are the murmuring sounds of holiday re-runs of Roseanne and Married… With Children playing loudly enough to be comforting but quiet enough to still allow sleep. Your parents in front of the television, happy with the joy they’ve brought you and the life you’ve built for you and your sister. You roll over. Maybe there is a new teddy bear next to you, or even just new pyjamas on your body. Something to remind you that though the world outside is busy and cold and unfeeling, tonight is still and warm and full of love.

Your parents have just tucked you into bed. They put the corners of the sheets down under the mattress in the way you like. You told your big sister, Stephanie, that this is simply to save you effort making it in the morning and to keep the cold out because sometimes the window gets drafty when the wind comes from the lee side of the house, but really it is because some childish part of your brain still runs free when the lights are off and the house is quiet save for the sounds of the television. The childbrain argues that monsters are real and since you’ve just seen the Oklahoma City Bomber on TV you know it’s true even if Timothy McVeigh can’t possibly be under your bed.

The room is quiet. You can still hear the noises from downstairs and see a faint yellow fan of light under the door from across the hall where your big sister talks on the see-thru phone she got special for Christmas, the one that’s on a separate line so mom and dad can’t listen in. This was very exciting for Stephanie but you can’t imagine why it would matter if mom and dad heard what you talk to your friends about. Her voice on the other side is comforting. The knowledge that somebody who cares about you is just on the other side of the door is a sacred thing, and you hold it close to your heart. It beats back the dark.

The only other light in the room is a small nightlight, just a pale blue orb behind a plastic butterfly. It’s plugged into the wall at the far side of the room by the closet. It doesn’t cast much light but it doesn’t need to. You’ve never liked the dark, not really. You used to sleep in the light but your mother and father sat you down and told you that you would need to grow out of this because the electricity had become more and more expensive in recent years. You were very upset about this but had been consoled by your parents agreeing to allow a low-wattage nightlight.

You watch it now through heavy eyes. The world just beginning to fade. Oblivion waiting. 

Then, without warning, the light rises. It lifts from its place behind the butterfly ornament that adorns the light and becomes marginally brighter. It’s still little more than a solitary Christmas bulb. It floats through the air slowly as if being guided by an unseen hand. You watch with a hesitant and uncomfortable mix of awe and fear as it halts just by the foot of your bed. You sit up. Childlike explanations without weight run through your head and fail to find purchase. 

The light shifts. There’s something behind it. Holding it. Fear unlike anything you’ve felt before tears through you. People always told you fear was cold but they were wrong, this is a blazing stripe of fire coursing through you, quickening your pulse and pulling at your heart. The light shifts as the bearer raises it past his face, and you see then that it is the face of a man except that it’s not; there are lines etched into it like kintsukuroi patterns except there’s no beauty here, just pallid skin and a mouth which seems to drift about the thing’s face like a toothy lilypad on the surface of a pond. You feel it steal your breath. Desperate for a solution, you reach out to your right and pull the light cord. The room fills with stale yellow light.

The man is gone. You look down to the right by the closet and see that the nightlight is still there, untouched. Your heartbeat begins to slow. The clammy feeling on your skin begins to recede. The fear doesn’t last as long as it would in an adult, whose mind would process its metaphysical implications. The child doesn’t care. She, who is you, just wants to sleep.

You read a book you had been given for Christmas for ten minutes and then the world begins to fade. Your body wants to sleep. You know you need to. With only the slightest hesitation, the light goes off again.

Click. 

The light floats there. The man’s face grinning behind. The smile has slid down now to where a mouth should be, and he watches you.

Click.

The light goes on. You hope mom and dad don’t notice. They wouldn’t like you playing with the light. You don’t think Stephanie would notice the flickering under the door anyway. She’s too busy on the phone. Besides, she wouldn’t tell. You and her share all kinds of secrets.

Click. 

The man is still there, the light still there. It has not moved. A wash of bravery overwhelms you and in the absence of other options you raise your voice to the shape in the dark.

“Hello?” you call.

“Hello,” he answers. “I’m sorry if I frightened you.” The voice reminds you of a wheezing cartoon elephant that you watch on Saturday mornings. High and breathy. 

“It’s okay,” you say, even if you’re still a little frightened. The apology has eased your feelings a little bit. “Why do you disappear when I turn out the light?”

The mouth drifts over to the man’s right cheek. It parts and his tongue lolls out. He points it cheekily and says “I don’t like the yellow light. It doesn’t feel good on my skin. That’s why I disappear when you turn the light on.”

“But why do you keep the nightlight with you, then?”

“Oh,” he says, and the mouth slides into a sideways frown. “That.” The light bobs up and down in the dark. “Well, it’s a little embarrassing.”

“You can tell me.”

“Really?”

“Promise.”

“Pinky promise?”

“Pinky promise.” You hold out your tiny pinky finger. It glows a fuzzy peach glow against the nightlight floating before you. A long finger, too long, curls itself around your pinky. It’s able to wrap itself around twice before stopping. It’s cold and dry and makes you want to pull back but something about the sanctity of the pinky promise keeps you from doing so. The thing behind the light smiles at you and then releases your finger. 

“Before I tell you what’s embarrassing, I’d like to know your name. I can’t keep a secret with anybody without knowing their name.”

This makes sense to you. You tell him your name and you feel a rush of excitement when the thing quivers with joy upon hearing it. 

“That’s a lovely name!” he cries. “What an absolutely beautiful name.” He then leans forward in a deep bow, bending at the waist until his head disappears beyond the foot of the bed. “I,” he exclaims dramatically, “am the Bric-a-Brac Man.” Then he pops back up, the smile replaced on his face. “And it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“It’s nice to meet you too,” you tell him. You aren’t sure if you believe it, but your parents taught you it was the polite thing to say when somebody has introduced themself to you. You have more questions of course – why he’s called the Bric-a-Brac Man, for one – but now is not the right time. He has a secret that you’re dying to know.

“Tell me,” you insist. 

“Tell you what?” His voice is a pantomime. He’s speaking to you in the same way your father does when he pretends to be surprised by the simple card tricks you learned in the book Stephanie and you picked out at the library. 

“The secret!”

“I’m afraid I don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about.”

“You promised! You promised to tell me why you took the nightlight!”

The Bric-a-Brac Man holds the floating bulb up to his face as if he’s seeing it for the first time. “This?” he says. “Oh, this is just a silly thing. I just thought it was pretty. I assume that’s why you keep it on in your room at night.”

“Nuh-uh,” you say. “I keep it on in my room at night because–”

“–Because what?” 

You don’t answer right away. A realization has come to you, shuddering and powerful. You look at the Bric-a-Brac Man with the confident swagger you ascribe to the detectives you see on TV and whisper: “You’re afraid of the dark.”

A look crosses the Bric-a-Brac Man’s face. It’s just for a second, but you see it and you know that you’re right. You don’t laugh, though. It wouldn’t be right to laugh. “It’s okay,” you say. “Can I tell you a secret?”

“What?” asks the Bric-a-Brac Man. His face has disappeared behind the bulb again. The voice is sullen and heavy. 

“I’m afraid of the dark too.”

There is a long silence. Then, after a moment, you hear a sniffle. Empathy steals into you and you want to reach out, but you’re tucked into bed still. So you pull your feet out from under the covers and step out onto the floor. Your new pyjamas keep your legs warm. You hear the sound of Stephanie from the other side of the door but it doesn’t matter now because your new friend needs you. He’s right there, after all. For a moment, you consider calling out to see if mom can help because she makes everything and everyone feel better, but you decide not to. You’re a big kid now. You can handle things like this. You walk to the foot of the bed and put your hand on the Bric-a-Brac Man’s arm. It feels just as cold as his finger did, but that doesn’t matter. This is what friends are for.

“I’ve always been afraid,” says the Bric-a-Brac Man. “Ever since I was a kid.” He sniffs again. It’s the loudest thing in the room. You can see now that a pale knife of moonlight cuts across the pillow where you laid previously and you wonder for a moment what that must have looked like. The Bric-a-Brac Man continues. “I had a mean daddy that didn’t take care of me. He never bought me a nightlight and I just had to sleep in the dark. I was so scared all the time.”

You look up at him. He looks down at you, the blue light of the nightlight cold against his face. His smile rests higher than before, close to his nose. “It’s okay,” you say. “I’m afraid, too.”

“I just want to stop being afraid,” he says.

A thought comes to you. Something mom and dad always said. “My mom and dad told me that the best way to get used to the dark is to stop sleeping with the light on. That’s why they gave me the nightlight. So it would help me get used to just a little bit of dark first. And then one day we would get rid of that too.”

“I-I-I don’t know if I’m ready for that.”

You squeeze his arm. “Me neither.” 

“Maybe we can do it together?” he suggests.

Fear trickles into your gut. It’s slow and cold and makes you aware of everything at once. The sounds of your family. The absolute stillness of the world outside the window. The snow which curls against the pane. The muted hum of the furnace from the register in the floor. And the Bric-a-Brac Man – your friend – standing beside you. 

“Okay,” you say. “Let’s turn out the light. Just for a minute. Just a little at first, okay?”

He nods, but says nothing. You can see the fright in his eyes. The mouth rests against his chin, downcast and worried. 

“We’ll count down together. From three.”

“Can we make it five?” 

You look at him. You’ve never seen anyone look so afraid. You nod your assent. “Let’s take turns counting. I’ll start.”

“Five. . .”

“Four . . .”

“Three . . .”

“Two . . .”

“One–”

Then, for the briefest second, you see something flash in his eyes. It doesn’t look like fear at all. It looks like hunger.

The light goes out.

It does not come back on.

Part Two of Twelve

#5 – Hell Hospital

The elevator chimed softly when it reached the fourth floor. The man disembarked, taking a left at the junction. Sterile white walls framed the corridor. Low humming lights flickered above. People walked with brisk intent down the hall. The man walked between them, effortlessly altering his path as he went, briefcase in hand. The words PALLIATIVE CARE and an arrow pointing to the right were mounted on the wall at the next intersection. The man with the briefcase went right.

He found himself in another hallway, this one with a window at the end. A portal of light so as to make the hall look dark. The nurse’s station was on the left when he entered. It was quiet and dark and a half-drunk milky cup of tea was the only sign that anyone was still around. This was no surprise. Stryker preferred not to make weekend calls if he could avoid it, but sometimes there were no two ways about it. He glided past the nurse’s station without signing the visitor’s log. He walked to the end of the hall and into the room on the right.

The room was quiet and dim. An insistent, rhythmic beeping was the only sound. Stryker stepped up to the foot of the bed and tapped his pen on the tray-table that stood there. After a few moments, the resident of the bed woke up. For the deeply ill, wakefulness appears often as a simple fluttering of the eyes, perhaps a movement of the mouth. For Stryker, it was enough. He had a responsibility to his client to offer the best services possible, and that often meant adapting to their disabilities.

“Mr. Moorhouse,” Stryker began, “it’s a pleasure to see you again. I sincerely hope you’ve been doing well. I’ve heard the news that your illness is liable to move more quickly than anticipated. Please accept my deepest condolences; I was filled with a terrible sorrow at the news. As much as my work forces me to confront the reality of life and death, I still often find myself overwhelmed by the randomness and the injustice of it all.” His voice was quiet, practically a purr. It carried a beguilingly calm tenor, but was still loud enough to be heard by all who needed to hear it. “I have brought the final papers concerning the matters of the estate. Simply sign here, as best you can, and I will ensure that all parties are paid as we discussed.” He held out the forms, bracing them against a clipboard. With his other hand, he placed a pen in the dying man’s hand and brought it to the paper. He felt the barest twitch of the man’s wrist muscles against his fingertips as he traced out the man’s signature. 

“Thank you,” he whispered as he tucked away the documents. “Everything is in order, Mr. Moorhouse. Please allow me to thank you for your trust in me. I hope your remaining days are pleasant, pain-free, and that you are surrounded by the love of your family and friends.” He snapped the briefcase shut.

“Good-bye, Mr. Moorhouse.”

The hospital was still quiet as he left. The nurse’s station had an occupant now, but she was busy on the computer and took no notice of Stryker’s passing. The influx of people on the way in had been replaced by an eerie silence. He saw not another soul as he walked back to the elevator. His footsteps tapped an insistent patter against the cold walls. He once heard the distant sound of a custodian with a squeaking cart, but could not pinpoint its location. 

When he arrived at the elevator and pushed the button, Stryker found that he was holding his breath. He exhaled slowly, letting the air part his lips. Though he was a stoic fellow who did not shy away from the grimmer aspects of his work, he always found the hospital visits unusually unnerving. There was some quality about these places that he despised, as if the building itself was brushing up against the bounds of human existence, crossing over whenever another soul was claimed.

The elevator door shut. 

There was a groaning sound as the machine spun into motion. The car began to descend. Stryker stood by the console, briefcase in hand, waiting for the doors to open. He had only one more call to make, this one at the Cedar and Oak Retirement Community, then he would be finished his rounds for the weekend. He turned his mind to thoughts of home. 

The elevator door opened.

It took Stryker a moment to account for the difference, for the lack of light. He assumed at first that he had stopped on the wrong floor, but the dull digital light above the door read G, and pressing the button again made no difference. Confused, he stepped out of the elevator. He wondered perhaps if he had gotten turned around and stepped into the wrong elevator bank. 

He appeared to be in an unfinished wing of the hospital. Plywood walls were erected around all sides of the elevator landing. Plastic tarpaulin hung limply overhead and along one wall. The walls emblazoned with strange patterns in scarlet paint. Symbols indescribable. Stryker stepped out into the low gloom, wondering if he was underground. Grey light filtered in from somewhere, but he could see no source. 

“Hello?” called Stryker. 

The echoes of his voice sounded back, but nothing more. The only way forward was through a gap in the tarp. It was dusty and looked unused.

“This is ridiculous,” muttered Stryker. He turned to the elevator and pushed the button to summon it. It clicked under his thumb, but nothing happened. He pressed it again. Harder. 

Still nothing. Stryker kicked the door, but that only made his foot hurt. He placed his briefcase on the ground and then tried to fit his fingers into the seam of the doors where they met in the middle. He was able to grasp the lip of each door. He pulled with all of his might, straining against the door until he heard a stitch pop in his jacket. The door didn’t even budge.

“What the FUCK!?” cried Stryker. Blood pounded in his head. He wiped sweat from his brow. Angry and resigned, he picked up his briefcase. He was sure a quick stop with the hospital administration wouldn’t take more than a few minutes. He took a last parting look at the elevator before he left the room through the gap in the tarp.

The halls beyond were only dimly lit. Whatever light had filtered through in the vestibule by the elevator did not extend to here. Instead, only hazy yellow bulbs lit the way, perched atop blackened lamps. The light was sickly, unnerving. The sound of his footsteps seemed cacophonous when placed against the quiet. The walls down this corridor were silty and grey, the colour of waterborne sediment. Arrows had been hastily drawn on the walls long ago, judging by the layers of dust. Stryker wondered why the place was so quiet, considering the amount of construction underway. Surely they had some labourers to work weekends. He moved quickly through those halls, praying that his innate sense of direction would guide him to the nearest stairwell.

Stryker rounded the next corner, and was met with a room bathed in a deep red light. The room appeared to be a waiting room like any other in the hospital. Rows of chairs like pews set out under vacant TVs, gilded with racks of magazines from decades past. The hallway turned and disappeared around a bend, past the nurse’s station which stood derelict and empty and black. Little more could be seen in that angry light; the shadows were dark and leaping. Suddenly, the wash of fear that had threatened to overwhelm him was replaced by a well of relief; the light’s source was a neon EXIT sign which shone dumbly into the dark. It crowned a set of double-doors. On the doors was the universal sign of egress: a man climbing a set of stairs.

Stryker almost whimpered with relief, rushing for the door. As he moved, he shifted his briefcase to his left hand so that he could press against the door with his full weight. He slammed into it faster than he intended.

Unfortunately, the door did not open. Instead, Stryker’s shoulder gave way with a great shuddering pop. This was punctuated by his scream tearing apart the silence. He slid down against the door, whining softly. 

Stryker’s arm hung limp and dead at his side. Vague memories of a teammate popping in another player’s arm on the football field rose in his mind, dead since high school. His left hand rose without asking, reaching toward his right. Its fingers encircled his wrist, hovering seductively. Perhaps if he just–

“No!” said Stryker, pulling back his delinquent arm. Odds were only that he’d make it worse. He was in a hospital, for God’s sake. Surely somebody would be able to treat him. He reached up with his left arm and gripped the bar above him. It depressed but did not open the door. He pulled himself up with it, gritting his teeth as his dead arm swung flaccidly in place. Now on his feet, he turned and began to consider another exit.

It was then that the light flicked on in the nurse’s station.

The light was warm and golden and poured into every corner of the room. Startled but relieved, Stryker strained to make out the figure behind the frosted glass in the room beyond. He scanned the desk and saw a gleaming metal bell. He tapped it thrice with his good hand. The clarion sound rang out. The figure behind the glass stopped suddenly, then turned toward the door on the left side of the window. It swung open. The on-call nurse stepped out.

For a moment and despite the pain, Stryker was caught off guard by the woman before him. A slender, waifish figure, her eyes were pale lavender over her mask. As she approached him, they grew darker; violet almost. They were framed with black eyeliner and pierced him as he stepped to the desk. 

“I see you’ve suffered an accident,” she said. Her voice was soft, yet precise. It seemed to assure him that he was now safe. Stryker smiled to see her. 

“Yes,” he said. “It’s been a terrible day so far. I was conducting some business with a client on the fourth floor, then took the wrong elevator and ended up in the construction area just over yonder. Then I found this door, and in my haste I’m afraid I’ve dislocated my shoulder. Is there a doctor available to help?”

The nurse nodded along as he spoke. “I’m sorry,” she said, shaking her head. “The fourth floor? You have a client there?”

“Yes,” said Stryker. “A Mr. Stephen Moorhouse. I’m afraid I can’t go into greater detail as to our arrangement, attorney-client privilege and–”

“I’m terribly sorry to be the one to have to tell you this,” interrupted the nurse, “but Mr. Moorhouse passed away just moments ago. They’re bringing him to the morgue now.”

“Oh,” said Stryker, uncharacteristically caught off-guard. “I’m sorry to hear that. I imagine you’ll notify the family? I’ll make sure all of the paperwork is drawn–”

“No, no, I don’t mean to make you go to all of that trouble,” said the nurse, interrupting again. “I just thought you might want to know.” She gestured behind Stryker. He turned and saw a wheelchair. “Why don’t you have a seat?” she asked. “I can bring you through to a doctor as soon as one’s available.”

“Yes, uh, okay,” said Stryker. He was still trying to calculate the timing of Mr. Moorhouse’s death in his head. How long had it been since he’d left? He sat down in the wheelchair. It rolled backwards a few inches. He checked his watch and tried to calculate when he had arrived and when he had left. How long had he spent trying to get back into the elevator? How long had he spent wandering the halls? He sat back in the wheelchair, then sat up suddenly when he realized he had forgotten his briefcase. He tried to ease himself out of the chair, wincing at the lancing shots of pain that tore through his shoulder. His efforts were stopped by a hand on his chest.

“Allow me,” said the nurse. Her eyes smiled at him over the mask. She stepped over to the briefcase, picked it up, and then placed it on the desk. “It’s right here for when you get back, okay?”

“I–I need it,” said Stryker lamely. “I’ve got all kinds of confidential documents in there. I really can’t leave it unsupervised.”

“It’s not unsupervised, silly!” chirped the nurse. “I’ll be right here with it while you’re in with the doctor.” She patted the top of the briefcase, producing a dull thumping sound. Her eyes fell to her watch. “Speaking of which, it’s about that time now! Let’s get you all fixed up.”

Stryker raised his hand to protest further, but the nurse swept past him and grabbed the handles on the wheelchair. She pushed and the wheels squeaked into motion. They rolled down the hallway beyond the nurse’s station, towards a set of pale doors with portholes for windows.

“Careful,” she whispered to Stryker. “There’s a bit of a bump.”

Stryker didn’t realize what she meant at first – was there some kind of divot in the floor? – and then the feet of the wheelchair struck the doors, swinging them open as if some uncanny kitchen lay beyond. The jolt of the impact rippled through Stryker’s body, causing him to cry out with pain. Spots bloomed before his eyes. The world swam.

“Aw jeez, I’m sorry!” said the nurse. “I didn’t think it would hurt that bad, what with the injury being in your arm and all.”

Stryker turned in the chair as much as he could, blinking away the pain. This had been the final indignity. “Are you insane, woman? Let me tell you, this whole hospital is in for an absolutely apocalyptic lawsuit! First the elevator takes me to an entirely separate section of the hospital. Then I find that section is under construction, without any kind of warning sign or direction as to the way out – not even a fucking drywaller to point me in the right direction! Then, when I finally find the way out, you hide in your little fucking booth and allow me to dislocate my fucking shoulder on a door – one which, for some reason, doesn’t even work!” Spit flew from his mouth as he spoke, spattering the front of the nurse’s scrubs. He didn’t care. Stryker believed firmly that people deserved exactly as much as what they gave out. 

“Look, mister, I’m sorry. I know you’re in a lot of pain, and I think that’s made you pretty grumpy. I totally get that, and I won’t hold it against you. In fact, I think I have just the trick!” She reached into her pocket and shuffled around.

“I don’t need anything other than a doctor and my briefcase,” insisted Stryker.

“Well, the doctor’s on the other side of this door,” said the nurse. Only then did Stryker realize they had stopped. A sign on the wall read Office of Dr. _______. The name seemed to drift and fade whenever Stryker focused on it. He shook his head cartoonishly, perhaps in an attempt to clear his vision. It didn’t work.

“You’ll get the briefcase back after you’re all fixed up,” continued the nurse. “ I don’t know why you don’t believe me when I say that.” She considered for a moment. “I don’t want you behaving with the doctor the way that you’ve been with me. He really doesn’t have patience for that sort of thing.” 

Stryker turned to speak, incredulity roaring inside him again, but was interrupted by the nurse clasping a hand over his mouth. His eyes rolled with panic. He felt something on his tongue, then realized the woman had slipped him some pills. They rolled around in his mouth. When the nurse realized he had not swallowed, she pinched her thumb and forefinger around his nostrils. Alarm tore through Stryker. He fumbled with his good hand at her wrist, but it was his left hand and her grip was iron strong. At last he gave up, swallowing the pills.

“What the hell was that?!” he cried, gasping for air.

“Just a little something to help you feel better,” said the nurse. “Now it’s time to see the doctor!” She knocked sharply on the door, then leaned forward across Stryker’s body to open it.

The room beyond was dark. The nurse pushed him further out to sea. The light from the door behind them the only sign of shore. The wheelchair stopped moving. Stryker waited a moment for something to happen, then realized with a start that the nurse was no longer there. Then, with little notice, the door swung shut, leaving Stryker in the cavernous black.

How he screamed and howled! Fits of roiling fury rolled through the lawyer, coming in ebbs and flows and then great waves which threatened to bathe the entire room in a wash of red, so great was his anger. When at last he was exhausted, his throat was raw and his shoulder ached violently. Anger began to turn to fear. Man was not meant to enter places like this, Stryker thought. Man was meant for places where the sun shone freely and the darkest nights were still bathed in starlight even in the absence of the moon, perhaps with the sound of water lapping gently against some distant shore, and the cries of bullfrogs and the buzzing of the night insects like a distant orchestra thrumming with the sounds of the reeds in the woodwinds buzzing like the reeds in the water and then Stryker realized he was stuck in his chair and the panic set in anew though the pain had gone and he was then struck with the knowledge that he was incredibly, impossibly high, and he laughed and laughed in the inky pitch of that room thinking of how he would sue the nurse, then the doctors, then the whole fucking hospital before he was through.

Stryker’s giggles had just begun to subside when the lights came on, spinning like wheels on the ceiling, kaleidoscopic patterns striking out to the walls in an effervescent pilgrimage. They shone on the operating table which gleamed a wicked metallic colour and behind it stood a man in a white jacket whose lips were peeled back to his black eyes revealing great raw bloody gums and tombstone incisors. Stryker screamed with laughter, gasping and fumbling in the chair and even though the pain in his shoulder was white-hot he pushed himself free of the chair, falling to the floor. The doctor said something and the sound was a cannon’s boom in that quiet room and Stryker yelled BELAY THAT ORDER for he had seen enough movies to know when an order needed belaying, but nobody listened and two shadows materialized beside him and lifted him screaming on to the table. A flash of scissors and his shirt fell away, exposing his naked belly to the room entire. The doctor said something more and the sound this time was a low murmur which crept and skittered over Stryker’s skin. Restraints appeared and held Stryker to the table. Stryker screamed and shook at them to no avail.

The doctor bent over Stryker, the slavering mouth hovering but inches before him. When he spoke, the words sounded inside Stryker’s head.

“Well,” he said, “let’s take a look at you. Normally I would have had our nurse take you to radiology, but you were so terribly rude to her that I think it’s best if we find another solution.”

Stryker opened his mouth and the words flowed out onto his chest, all different letters jumbled up and lost.

“We’re going to have to quickly realign the arm. You’ve been moving it about so much that I worry for the tendons. I just need to finish with Mr. Moorhouse, then I’ll be right with you.”

The doctor then got up and walked over to another table. Cold filled Stryker’s chest. His client was sitting up on the table, totally naked. He waited patiently as the doctor listened to his chest and then looked inside his mouth and his ears. Eventually, the doctor clapped the dead man on the shoulder.

“Good to go,” he said.

Mr. Moorhouse leapt to his feet and stepped up to Stryker. The light shifted and Stryker saw that the old man’s eyes were scratched out. 

“Goodbye, Mr. Stryker,” said Mr. Moorhouse. The old man then turned and walked through the door. A brilliant light shone beyond and the man disappeared.

“Now,” whispered the doctor in his ear. “Back to you.”

Stryker felt great rough hands grasp his injured shoulder. He opened his mouth to beg but was silenced by a piercing shock of pain. He blacked out. He dreamt things that man is not meant to dream. Planes of being swam before him: entire worlds; all worlds. They spun away into an unfeeling darkness.

When Stryker woke, he was in a bed. Light shone in through a window. An IV was connected to his wrist. His head pounded. His shoulder was in a sling and ached dully. He saw his briefcase lying on the small visitor’s table. He looked around the room with awe, clenching and unclenching his fist against the thin polyester of the sheets. 

A knock on the door made him jump, but he relaxed when he saw a smiling nurse looking at him with kind eyes. He recognized her from the nurse’s station in the palliative ward.

“Where am I?” he asked. His voice was a gravelly croak. His throat felt dry and raw.

“Just a recovery room,” she said gently. “We’re not totally sure what caused it, but you had some kind of episode when you learned that your client, Mr. Moorhouse, had passed on. It caused you to fall and dislocate your shoulder. I guess you’re lucky it happened in a hospital, right? Not very far to go for treatment.”

“I-I had some terrible dreams.”

“Dreams can’t hurt us, Mr. Stryker. That shoulder sure can, though, so I’m going to run through a few exercises with you to make sure everything’s all set, then you should be good to be released today.”

“Right, okay,” said Stryker. He laid back in the bed and finally allowed relief to take him. 

Two months later, Stryker got the bill in the mail. He had actually almost thrown it out; he had been so occupied with finalising the late Mr. Moorhouse’s estate that anything else seemed secondary. Luckily, the logo of the hospital on the front of the envelope caught his eye. He tore the letter open and unfolded the bill. When he saw the last line item, he gasped and dropped the letter. Panic gripped his heart and he was forced to sit down. His shoulder had begun to throb.

Shoulder Setting – $880

Wheelchair Use – $300

Sling – $200

Plutonian Painkillers – $750

Consultation – Abbadon Ward – $666

Stryker looked at the letter for a long time. Perhaps some part of him hoped that doing so would change it. But it didn’t. 

With a sigh of dismay, Stryker picked up the phone and called his insurance company.

#4 – I Took A Picture

“I took a picture,” said Jeff to his mother, tugging on her pant-leg. “Look at it.” He held it upright, waving it at her. “I took a picture with my camera.”

Leanne smiled. Jeff’s camera was one of the small old-fashioned Polaroids you could get for a hundred bucks at the electronics store. Jeff had been interested in photography ever since he’d begun reading Spider-Man comics and decided that he wanted to be Peter Parker, so it had made for a perfect Christmas gift. But now it was dinner that same day, and there was no time to be looking at pictures.

“That’s very beautiful, sweetie,” said Leanne, barely glancing at it. She saw a dark blotch and little more. The light never seemed to work right for those cameras, but she didn’t have time to think about it; she was in the middle of figuring out the stuffing recipe Jaz at work had given her. She hadn’t made stuffing in years, and she hadn’t planned on it this year, but then her parents had told her they’d be in town after all and so she had felt obligated to do things perfectly. Looking down at Jeff, she was sure she was doing the right thing. That didn’t make it any less stressful. 

“You didn’t look, mom.” 

“I did! It was very pretty.”

“It’s not pretty, it’s art. It’s a portrait.”

“A portrait of who?” asked Leanne absentmindedly. 

“I don’t know who he is. I just saw him and took a picture and then ran away.”

When had Jeff gone outside? The weather had been awful this Christmas, raining insistently for the last three days. There wasn’t a speck of snow to be seen, either; Leanne was disappointed by this. She remembered white Christmases all through her youth, and hoped that Jeff might one day remember them, too. “Well,” she said, “it’s not polite to take pictures of strangers without their permission.”

“He asked me to,” came the answer from below.

Circumstance might have still allowed for things to be different at this point. If Leanne had not been so distracted, or her parents sleeping so quietly in the next room, then perhaps Jeff might not have taken another picture that day. 

“Well,” said Leanne, “that’s a little bit different. It’s okay in those circumstances. But please make sure to only take pictures of strangers when mommy is around, okay? I don’t want anybody taking it the wrong way.”

“Okay, mom.” 

Satisfied, Leanne bent down and kissed her son on the top of his head. Jeff endured this, then walked around the kitchen island and through to the adjoining living room. Grandma and Grandpa slept on the plush sofa, their heads each lying softly on the other’s shoulder. Some old black-and-white film played on the screen before them, the MUTE symbol flashing on the left. Jeff thought about waking his grandparents under the pretense of telling them they were missing their movie, but decided not to. He would show them the picture at dinner.

With little to do before then, Jeff decided to practice with his camera some more. He walked into the dining room. The table wasn’t as big as it had been during Christmases where dad was still around, but that was okay. It still looked beautiful. Once before, Jeff had suggested to his mother that they open up the leaves and make a setting for Dad, but then his mother’s eyes had welled with tears, and Jeff had immediately dropped the subject. He later had promised himself that he’d never suggest anything like that again. 

The place-settings were still beautiful, however, so up went the camera.

CLICK!

There was a soft whrrr as the camera printed the picture. Jeff took it out, then flapped it about in the air in front of him. He slipped it in his pocket to let it develop. Then he went on to the next room. 

He proceeded to take pictures all through the house. He had decided that they might need them if they ever had to sell the house. He hoped they never would, but his best friend Mark’s parents had gotten divorced, and then he had moved two months later. Jeff wasn’t sure if it was different when a parent died instead, but thought it would be polite to be prepared. He passed through the house like a phantom, going room-to-room. He finished upstairs in the bathroom, where the faint smell of vanilla hovered in the air.

“All done,” he said to himself.

But that wasn’t true, and he knew it. He still needed to photograph his bedroom. He turned and exited the bathroom, then took the few steps down the hall toward his door. The walls were a pale brown, and he imagined himself a gunslinger on some dusty mesa, preparing to face his foe.

Jeff opened his bedroom door and stepped inside. There was a soft whining sound as it swung shut behind him.

“Hello again, Jeffrey,” said a voice. It had a wheezing, foppish quality to it. “Have you come to take my picture again? That last one was really good, but I think we can get a better one with you and me in it.”

“No,” said Jeff, “I’m just taking a picture of my bedroom for something I’m working on. Then I’ll be done taking pictures for today.”

“That makes me quite sad,” replied the voice, heavy with sorrow. “I told all of my friends that I would bring back a picture of me and my new friend Jeffrey.”

“Mom says she doesn’t want me taking any more pictures of strangers without her around.”

“Strangers?!” cried the voice. “Well, I suppose I can see why you feel that way. After all, I know your name, but you don’t know mine. I’m happy to introduce myself if you’d like, but I need you to look at me. You don’t look at me when we talk, and that makes me very sad.”

Jeff whispered something.

“What’s that?” asked the voice. “I’m sorry, Jeffrey, but I can’t hear you when you whisper. You’ll need to speak up.”

“You scare me, okay?” 

“Oh . . . I’m sorry. I know I’m not the most handsome guy around, but I was told a long time ago by my mother that it was what’s on the inside that counts. Didn’t your mother ever tell you the same thing?”

“Yes,” admitted Jeff.

“I would really appreciate it if you said sorry.”

“I’m sorry,” said Jeff.

“Thank you,” said the voice. “I humbly accept your apology.” There was a sound then–an unfurling sound, as if of wings. “Now Jeffrey, why don’t you look at me? You’ve apologized, so I think the best thing you could do now is look at me so I can properly introduce myself. You weren’t even looking through the viewfinder when you took the last picture!”

Without warning, Jeff felt his legs begin to turn towards the sound. He did not know if his brain had betrayed him, or if the thing in the corner was exerting some kind of malevolent force against him. He considered trying to make a break for the door, crying for his mother, or even just hiding under the bed. In the end, he did none of these things because he was very scared. When one is frightened, they are liable to do things that seem illogical to any outsider. 

Jeff’s legs thus continued to turn, until at last he got a good look at who the voice belonged to.

It had the aspect of a man, but was far too tall, its back arced where it met the ceiling. It had a great black cloak which fell behind it, and wore a pitch-black bowler hat. Its face leered from under the hat, a china-white visage that seemed fractured and patchwork. Torn across its face was a great sideways smile, which floated about its brittle skin like scum on the surface of a pond. Inside the cloak were a number of knick-knacks and ornaments, the kinds of small collectible that could be found at any antique store or in your grandmother’s curio cabinet. Some looked very old, while others shone brightly. It glittered and jangled as it moved.

“I,” said the voice proudly, its owner descending into a deep bow, “am the Bric-a-Brac Man.” It smiled, and the smile crawled up next to its eyebrows. “I would very much like to take a picture with you now, Jeffrey.”

And so Jeff’s legs began to pick themselves up, then place themselves down. Step by step, he drew closer to the nightmare in the corner. The Bric-a-Brac Man’s face loomed over him. Then he was there, and the creature bent down so that it was at the same height as him. One arm curled over his shoulder, drawing him closer. It felt stiff and cold. There was the faint smell of oranges and chocolate. 

“What do you think, Jeffrey?” asked the Bric-a-Brac Man. “Do you want to take a selfie?”

Jeff nodded, too scared to speak.

“I’ll take it!” cried the Bric-a-Brac Man. “I think I’ve got a longer reach.” He plucked the camera from Jeff’s trembling hands, then reached his arm out impossibly far, until it almost touched the ceiling. He faced the camera back towards them, one crooked white finger on the shutter.

“Now,” whined the Bric-a-Brac Man, “make sure you smile real good for me, okay? I want this to be a great picture! Say wheeeeeeee!” 

Wheeeee!” moaned Jeff.

Click!

The room was briefly illuminated by a flash, and then it was quiet. There was a soft thudding sound as the camera fell to the floor, then a papery whisper as the photo printed. It would not be discovered for another thirty-eight minutes, when Leanne would come to fetch Jeff for dinner. She would first linger in the doorway, calling out to see if he had decided to play hide-and-seek. Then she would turn on the light, for day had faded to dusk. She would check under the bed, and then in the closet. Only then would she find the camera where it had fallen. From there, she would find the picture. 

The picture, which would be her first step on the path to insanity, showed a man in a black hat with a harlequin face, a smile on his nose, and his eyes locked firmly on the boy in his arms. That boy was Jeff, who stared at the camera with a tetanus grin and tears filling his eyes.

Leanne screamed until her throat began to bleed.

Part One of Twelve

#2 – Istapparhund

The first bite of the icy wind gnawed at Drew’s cheek as he stepped out of the hotel into the bluing light. It felt as though the sun had only just risen. His watch told him that it was 2:30 in Spegeldalen, but he wouldn’t have known it by the way the sun hovered at the rim of the world. Brilliant streaks of orange lit out across the snow. The rays bore no heat with them, and now the dark sought to steal away what little comfort the light offered.

Drew pulled the packet of cigarettes out of his parka’s pocket, cupping his hand against the wind to light it. He flicked the match into the snow, then stepped around the corner of the building to the lee side, somewhat sheltered from the worst of the wind. Something howled in the distance. What kind of person would allow a dog to be out on a day like today? He dragged on the cigarette and shook his head. Probably the same kind of people that thought it’d be fun to set up a resort in the middle of fucking nowhere. He wiped his nose to prevent a pendulous string of snot from freezing. He supposed that the resort management wasn’t entirely to blame for him being here. Surely Marlene shared some of the responsibility, given that she had had the idea to come to Sweden instead of Ibiza for their winter holiday.

Baby, it’ll be so much fun! Look at the brochure. They have ice-skating trails through the forest, skiing, dog-sledding . . . private hot tubs in all the rooms. Drew could still hear the cadence of her voice as she listed this last point. He had almost been insulted when she had mentioned it; after all, it wasn’t his fault that it had been so long. Four months, when last Drew had counted. Long enough that it was painful, but not so long that it was time to call a lawyer.

Marlene had seemed genuinely excited, though, and so with that (and the other thing) in mind, Drew had dutifully nodded his head and agreed to the trip. Five weeks later, they had flown from London to Stockholm before climbing aboard a bus for a seven-hour drive north. When they had finally disembarked, it had been to a small bus station two miles from the chalet. One final taxi ride had brought them to their destination, the Spegeldalen Hotel, Resort, and Spa. 

The place itself was beautiful, of course. Marlene always had an eye for luxury. Drew hadn’t expected anything less, which was half the reason he had allowed her to book the trip in the first place. Still, the promise of comfort hadn’t stopped him from gasping with shock when he had stepped off the bus and into the cold dark. Man wasn’t meant to live in places like this, he figured, and he was prepared to stand by that if Marlene tried to fight him on it. He tried getting her attention during the taxi ride, but she had ignored him in favour of talking to the driver. Once they had arrived at the hotel, she’d immediately launched into conversation with the receptionist. 

Drew sighed and distracted himself by looking around the lobby. It was some kind of hyper-modern style, all white lines and smooth curves. Fires leaped and flickered in black fireplaces inset in the walls, lending the room a cozy feel, despite the stark architecture. Great golden lights hung above him. A restaurant at the other end of the room hummed with the bustle of other visitors, tired-looking folks who smiled and laughed with one another.

Maybe this isn’t so bad, Drew had thought. Maybe I should just put up with the cold. Making a decision, he turned back towards the desk and went to follow his wife.

Thinking back on it now, Drew wished he had said something then. It would have been easier. But nothing had gone quite as he intended; Marlene was an active woman who wanted to be out in the snow, skiing or skating. Drew would rather have stayed in the hotel room, getting drunk and sitting in the Jacuzzi. Maybe later he would have gone to the spa for a massage, depending on the prices. But he had no interest in going out in the snow any more than he had to, and he made sure that Marlene knew about it. She might have big plans for outdoor activities, but he would find his own path. He was sure that she’d come along in time. 

Drew shivered. The sun was past the horizon now, the cigarette nearly finished. He decided to have another in order to justify his being out there. He was in the middle of removing the packet when he was interrupted by a powerful gust of wind.  His hood was ripped off his head, the packet sent careening into the dark.

“Fuck!” he cried, chasing after it. There were no-smoking signs all over the resort. Who knew if they even had cigarettes for sale? He wasn’t sure if he’d ever seen a Swede smoking. His feet sank into the deep snow up to his calf. Drew could see a thin trail where the packet had skipped across the snow like a rock over a pond. It disappeared into the night. Howling could be heard again, a piercing cry that startled Drew in its proximity. A wolf? No, it has to be a dog. Wolves wouldn’t get that close to civilization. The sound of it was near enough that he reconsidered. Better safe than sorry. He turned to go inside.

The one good thing about the cold, Drew decided, is that it makes you appreciate what it is to be warm. Stepping inside the hotel again was akin to slipping into a hot bath without being wet. He shut the door behind him. The hotel’s hall was quiet, the pale sconces humming softly in their places. Nobody else was around. There were few guests at the resort at all, in fact; whether this was a consequence of the season or the weather, Drew wasn’t sure. All he knew is that it was still too many, for Marlene had done what she always did and befriended the first people that she came across. They were to have dinner that evening with her new friends, Sven and Hanne.

“Better hurry and get into something nice,” chirped Marlene as he entered the room. Drew rolled his eyes privately. She hadn’t even waited for him to take off his boots before barking orders at him. 

“Are you sure we need to go to this? Can’t we just order room service, stay in, watch a movie?”

“Andrew, we came all this way for the sake of a trip, not to watch movies.” She was fiddling with her earrings, looking at him only through the reflection in the mirror. “Sven and Hanne are perfectly lovely people. They said that the restaurant’s herring is out of this world. I want to try the herring. They want to eat it again. It’s no big deal to just go and eat some fish.”

“I don’t like fish that much. Maybe just fish and chips.”

“Then order fish and chips, I don’t care. Order a fucking steak. Whatever you want. Please just do this thing with me.”

“Alright, alright.” In truth, Drew had always planned on saying yes. No, he didn’t particularly want to eat with a couple of strangers, but he also didn’t want to sit in the room alone like a loser. 

“Thank you,” said Marlene. “This’ll be fun, I promise.”

“No problem.”

Once dressed, the couple walked together to the restaurant which Drew had spied during the check-in. Soft music played, some classical piece that Marlene probably knew, but Drew only heard as elevator music. A handsome blond couple stood in front of the maître d’. They smiled and waved to Drew and Marlene.

“Jesus, Mar, I didn’t realize we were having dinner with the Aryan Nation,” whispered Drew. 

“Welcome to Sweden, Drew. Lots of people have blond hair here. It doesn’t make them Nazis.”

“It’s called a joke.”

“I thought jokes were supposed to be funny?”

Drew opened his mouth to reply, but Marlene had already opened her arms for a hug. The woman, Hanne, pulled her close, and then Sven did the European cheek-kiss thing that Drew was still having a difficult time adjusting to. He proffered his hand awkwardly for a handshake with each of them, which they both accepted. 

“Hi, I’m Andrew, but you can call me Drew.”

“So nice to meet you,” said Sven. His accent was soft, his smile wide. “I’m Sven. This is my partner, Hanne.”

She smiled too. So many smiles. “Shall we eat?” she asked. “I’m starving.”

“Yes!” enthused Marlene. “I’m ready to try this herring you’ve been telling me about. I’ve been craving fish ever since I got here.”

Drew raised an eyebrow at this, but said nothing. Back home, Marlene hated fish. She’d even refuse to kiss him if he had eaten fish and chips with his friends until he’d brushed his teeth. Who was this woman?

“What about you?” asked Sven. “Are you ready to taste real Swedish cuisine?”

Drew forced a smile. “I suppose I am,” he said.

To its credit, the restaurant’s food was delicious. Even the herring Marlene had ordered did look good, though Drew wasn’t about to admit it. It was served on a bed of microgreens, with a thin glaze of some kind drizzled over it. He had watched her as she had eaten, only looking away to answer the occasional questions that Sven and Hanne tossed his way, but she never betrayed any sign of a grimace or gag to suggest she wasn’t enjoying her meal. This incensed Drew for reasons he couldn’t pinpoint. More infuriating yet was that the Swedish couple seemed far more interested in Marlene. This was often the case with new people, but Drew found that he could usually tune it out. Not this time.

“So what do you guys do around here when it’s this cold?” he asked.

“Stay inside, mostly,” replied Hanne. “Read books. Play board games. Watch TV. Don’t you do the same?”

Drew opened his mouth to reply, but Marlene got there first. “Drew likes a lot of those things, too, right baby?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I guess. I was kind of hoping to do something more outdoorsy, given that we’re on vacation in a winter wonderland and all.”

This time it was Marlene’s turn to raise her eyebrow. Drew flashed her a grin. Think on that, Mar.

“Have you been skiing yet?” asked Hanne. “The slopes are really nice here. Nothing too crazy after all, we’re still in the relatively low part of the country, but enough to make it worth the trip to the lift. Or maybe skating? Sven and I did the trail through the forest just last week. They maintain it the whole way through, it’s truly spectacular.” 

“I was thinking some snowshoeing. Maybe even tonight, if the weather clears.” Drew had no idea why he’d suggested that. He certainly wasn’t about to do it. Was he that desperate to annoy Marlene?

“Oh no,” said Sven, eyes wide. “You can’t do it tonight.”

Drew just about got up out of his chair to find a pair of snowshoes when Sven said that. “Why not? I bet the stars are beautiful. ”

There was silence for a moment. Then the couple looked at one another. Sven inclined his head towards Hanne, as if to say you go ahead. She nodded, took a long sip of her wine, and then said, “because of the Istapparhund.”

“The what?”

“Ees-topper-hoond?” asked Marlene. “What does that mean?” She reached for her purse, probably for the phrasebook that she’d used to read road signs and billboards on the bus ride up.

“You won’t find it in a book,” said Sven softly. “It’s kind of a local legend.” He looked from Marlene to Drew, then back again. “It’ll sound very silly, but it’s best to abide by these things. We are a superstitious lot in Spegeldalen.”

“But what does it mean?” asked Drew. Against his better intentions, his curiosity was piqued.

Sven looked to Hanne. “Your English is better than mine. How would you translate it?”

Hanne thought for a quick second. “Icicle dog would be the closest translation, I suppose.”

“Icicle dog,” repeated Marlene. “This is a local legend? Like the Loch Ness Monster?”

“Not quite like that,” said Sven. “The Loch Ness Monster, she’s more of a mystery than anything children might be afraid of. Lots of people claim to have seen the Istapparhund. When they talk about it, they don’t talk about it with the kind of excitement or awe you might expect from somebody who saw the Loch Ness Monster.”

“Yes,” said Hanne. “They always seem terrified. Scared out of their wits.”

“By the icicle dog,” said Drew flatly.

“I know it sounds very silly,” said Hanne. “But please take it very seriously. It may seem like a quaint local tradition, but we all are very careful all the same. We stay inside on the coldest nights, because that’s when the Istapparhund hunts. Usually it’s game like rabbits or sometimes bigger animals like a fox. But every once in a while, they find a person. Sadly, it’s most often a child who wanted to play outside or perhaps a homeless person who couldn’t find shelter.” Her voice shrank, barely to a whisper. “There was one last month. I heard the snow was so covered in blood that it had begun to melt before it froze again. They had to dig two feet down to find white.”

“Hanne, please,” said Sven. “There’s no need to trouble them with such things. They are enjoying their vacation.”

“Please, forgive me,” said Hanne. “I’m interested in local myths. That’s actually why we live here; I’m studying folklore at Malmö University, and part of my work concerns Swedish legends as well.”

“Are you telling me that there’s some kind of monster in the woods who kills children and it’s never made the news?” asked Marlene. She said it kindly, but her voice carried a tone of incredulity. 

“Please understand, this is not something that we are proud of. The local authorities put out warnings every winter, when the sun begins to set early. But we don’t advertise it in tourist areas because nobody goes out late anyway. If a death happens, it’s usually blamed on a bear or another homeless person. Tourism is very important to Spegeldalen, and they don’t want anything in the news that might drive people away.”

“This is a joke,” muttered Drew. Marlene is trying to get back at me somehow for smoking on the trip. She knew I would want to go outside before bed for another. She didn’t want me coming to bed stinking of smoke, so she cooked up this scheme with her new friends to keep me from doing it. Maybe next time, baby. And yet, even as he thought this, some atavistic part of his brain recollected the baying howl that he had heard earlier that evening.

“We know how it sounds,” said Sven. “But please, stay inside at night. If not for our sake, then for yours.”

Marlene opened her mouth, perhaps to ask more questions, but the waiter chose that moment to arrive with the bill. The conversation turned away from the Istapparhund, and each couple prepared to go to their rooms. They separated in the halls leading to opposite wings of the hotel, and Marlene and Drew walked back in a stony silence.

“What the hell was that?” Marlene finally asked.

“What was what?” 

“All that nonsense about snowshoeing. Since when do you want to go outdoors?”

“What can I say?” said Drew. “I was inspired.”

“Inspired to be a dick, maybe.”

“Come on, Mar. You’ve been messing with me just as much. I mean, all that about the ice dog or whatever? Please. You don’t really think I’m that gullible, do you?”

Marlene’s face blanched. “Drew, I really didn’t have anything to do with that. I was as surprised as you were when they brought it up.”

Drew nodded along. “I bet you were, babe. It’s okay, I’m not mad. I think we each need our jokes to remember why we love each other.”

“I’m being serious,” said Marlene. “I didn’t like that story, either. That detail about all the blood? That’s fucked up. Do you really think I could come up with that?”

“Maybe that was Hanne’s contribution, I don’t know. She seems like a natural storyteller.”

“Just don’t go for a smoke before bed, okay? I know you smoked earlier. I really don’t care. Just wait ‘til morning, please.”

“I didn’t smoke earlier.”

“I smelled it on you. It was super obvious, even with your cologne.”

“That was from the fires in the lobby.”

“Those are electric! Are you being deliberately dense?”

“No more than you, love.”

They had reached the room by this point. Marlene slid the key into the lock and then stormed in, kicking her shoes off. She went to the mini-fridge, muttering something under her breath. Drew’s imagination gave him a few ideas as to what that might be, but he didn’t ask. She pulled a short bottle of wine out of the door and then slammed it, glaring at him as she made her way to the bathroom. He then heard the click of the lock and the sound of the bath.

Drew decided he needed a break. He thought about turning on the TV, but watching a bunch of expensive movies with Swedish dubs and English subtitles didn’t appeal to him. He went to the closet and patted his jacket, mostly out of a nagging sense of curiosity. He was on the third pocket when he felt what he had hoped for; he reached inside and withdrew a single sad, flaccid cigarette. Hell yes, he thought. He peeked around the corner to be sure the bathroom door was still closed. The tap was still running, so she’d likely be in there for a while yet. He grabbed his coat and exited the room as quietly as he could.

The chill was almost shocking when he stepped outside, an iciness that seemed to invade parts of him that had never been cold before. The wind bit at the thin places on his body: his nose; his cheeks; his knuckles. It seemed to exist somehow inside his very bones. The little spark of flame on the tip of his match carried all the warmth in the world. He touched it to the tip of the cigarette, turning his body to shelter it from the storm. The orange ember lit his face with a soft and primeval light. 

He had just about finished when he heard the sound of crunching in the snow. He turned to see who was there, assuming it was another guest, but found himself at a loss for words.The tail of the cigarette fell soundlessly from his mouth, the wind whistling into his lungs as his throat clenched and unclenched in a vain attempt to scream.

Before him was a creature not unlike a wolf, except it was entirely unlike a wolf. Its body was composed entirely of translucent aqua-blue ice, sculpted perhaps by some dispassionate god. As the thing shifted and the pale halogen light over the hotel door caught it, Drew realized with another shock of horror that the ice was sharp. Jagged peaks and valleys thrusted out from the creature’s body, a nightmare of geometry, its very eyes two inky coal-black pebbles perched atop shards of glass which pivoted and turned on some unknowable axis. These eyes tracked Drew and he froze, all thought of the cold forgotten. 

I’m not so far from the door, he thought. Not so far at all. He slowly stretched his arm out–

–And was interrupted by an ear-splitting, keening howl, one which shook him to his core, turning his bones into water. The creature had split its jaw to the sky as it cried, and Drew had caught a glimpse of its teeth, rows and rows of squat icicles, inlaid upon one another like shark’s teeth. He felt a trickle of warmth down his leg, but it barely registered in his mind. Making a decision, he sprang into action, grabbing the door handle with all of his might, fumbling in his pocket for the key.

Two seconds later, he realized that he had left the key in the room.

Five seconds after that, a wall of pain unlike any he’d ever known hit his back. He was suddenly in the snow, his cheek shrieking as it was pressed and tossed against the powder. He felt strangely disconnected from his body. The light above began to turn dull and fade, white to grey to black.

As the Istapparhund began to feed, Drew’s last thought was the annoying certainty that Marlene had been right.