#24 – Horror Vacui

“How much longer now?”

“You asked me that an hour ago.”

“Well, I’m bored.”

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

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

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

“Just hangin’ with my pal, Sal.”

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

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

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

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

“Fuck off.”

“Love you, too.”

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

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

“Remember when I told you to fuck off?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It better be.”

“Hey Polina?”

“Yeah?”

“Do you think we need to panic?”

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

“Roger,” said Sal, closing the link.


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Show ‘em.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Truly, you are a noble so–”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Moray?” asked Sharp, breaking the silence.

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

“Jesus.”

“What the hell happened? An asteroid?”

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

Polina nodded, and Sal continued.

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

“What kind of activity?” asked Sharp irritably.

“I was just getting to th–”

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

“What was the phenomenon?” asked Sharp.

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

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

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

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

“Like?”

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

“By what? A rogue planet?”

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

“What the fuck?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What can’t be?” asked Sharp.

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

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

“Something’s attacking us.”

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

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

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

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

Sal let out a long whistle. “Shit.”

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

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

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

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

“Well?” asked Sharp. “What is it?”

“We blow the Gunnison’s reactor.”

“Wha–”

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait!” cried Lex. 

“What?” asked Sharp.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

These considerations did not provide any additional comfort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or worse, that it might be noticed.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“I need to do this,” said Briggs.

“Don’t be stupid. It was my idea.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Hurtling towards home.

#23 – Peephole

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

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

I learned this the hard way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAM! WHAM! WHAM!

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

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

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

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

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

WHAM! WHAM! WHAM!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hallway beyond was empty.

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

Then the eyes all snapped to the peephole.

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

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


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

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

#22 – The Tree

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

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

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

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

If only they could.

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

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

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

Closer.

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

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

I leaned forward and pressed my face to the bark.

#21 – The Stairs

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

1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

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

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

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

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

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

3

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

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

4

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

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

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

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

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

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

It had opened because somebody was home.

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

#17 – These Haunted Streets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If the stories are true, they do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

SN: That would be lovely, thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AK: Do you know about the photo?

SN: Yes, I do. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

AK: That’s very sweet of you to say. 

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

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

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

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

SN: What time would you say you arrived?

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

SN: It’s hard to beat the classics. 

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

SN: I’m sorry.

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

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

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

SN: So what did you do instead?

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

SN: Did they take long to get there?

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

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

AK: Possibly, but also because of the house.

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

AK: Not hers. The one up the street. 

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

AK: I’d never seen it before. 

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

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

SN: In what way?

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

SN: All that just from looking?

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

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

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

SN: Where did he go?

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

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

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

SN: What time of year was this?

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

SN: Did he ever tell you what happened?

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

SN: What did he say in the morning?

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

SN: What did he do after that?

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

SN: Nothing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[inaudible]

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

[inaudible]

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

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

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

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

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

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

SN: Anything I can.

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

SN: I–

[The recording ends here.]

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

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

End of Part Four

#16 – The Passage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So please, listen up. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whatcha doing?” I asked.

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

“What are you whittling?” asked Abe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We should explore it,” said Abe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You do that.”

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

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

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

“Rocks, mostly,” I replied.

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

“Not yet.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, I can’t fit down there.”

“Who said you had to?”

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

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

“Alright. But just don’t drop it.”

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

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

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

“How’s it going?” I called. 

“What?” 

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

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

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

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

“What was that?” called Abe from below.

“Not talking to you! Talking to Arthur!”

“What?”

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

“Abe! Abe! Are you there?”

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

“What?”

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

“Can you see the light?”

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

“I’m gonna come down to get you.”

“No! You’ll just get stuck, too.”

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

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

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Abe’s stuck. You gotta go get help!”

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

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

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

“Abe?” I cried. “Abe? You there?”

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

“What? Why?”

“Because there’s someone else down here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#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

#11 – Lighthouses

The story below was written and based on concepts provided by one of my best friends, Austin MacDonald.

The astronaut slept. When he slept, he dreamed. The dream never changed anymore. It began with him on a raft, or perhaps some kind of skiff, far out on the ocean. In the dream, he was a mariner, not an astronaut. It was night and the sky was black overhead and the sea below was the kind of fathomless dark that only exists when light has never visited at all. The sea roiled, and the ship rose and fell in the wake of each wave. The sky above was dotted with stars, tiny pinpricks of white in the inky firmament. The mariner adjusted the tiller, veering towards shore. He could not see it, but he knew it to be there. 

A beam of yellow shone out across the water. No sound of foghorn to accompany it, but it was a beacon all the same, a spear of sunlight in the night. Once more the mariner adjusted the tiller, turning his way towards home. Above him the stars glimmered, brilliant and immovable.

Then he woke up, and he was an astronaut again.

–––––

The astronaut unstrapped himself from the sleep module, using the grab bars to launch himself forward through the ship towards the ovoid command module at the end of the corridor. He drifted past empty cryopods and did not look at them. Viewports on either side of the ship revealed the stars, but he never looked at those, either. His only check-in on the way to running the maintenance cycles was on the crop of soybeans that grew then under white light like sterile hospital light. Dew clung to vibrant green leaves, the only true source of colour in that place. The astronaut was pleased to see them progressing, but the memory of the last crop lingered in his mind. This yield would be less than that. A knife of worry turned in the astronaut’s gut. This was the third crop in a row with diminishing returns. 

The astronaut left his plants and drifted through the ship, back towards the command module. The astronaut’s beard floated around his face. He had considered cutting it, but decided not to. Like everything about him, it only had so long. The beard would be a marker of time passed.

There was no door to the command module. They hadn’t thought they would need doors. The astronaut angled himself forward, using the wall’s inertia to push himself to the seat. He brought his knees to his chest, fetal-like, then drifted into place. A quick glance at the monitors showed that all readings were sound, just as they were every other day. Spontaneous mechanical problems didn’t exist in a vacuum the way they did on Earth. In space, everything was as it always was. 

The astronaut dimmed the lights. He wondered why he still checked. The readings said what they always said. 

All systems go. Cryopods offline.

Only one lifeform aboard.

–––––

The ship’s life had begun out of desperation. A cloudless night in late April on the bluffs outside Tel Aviv had been the place of revelation. An Israeli astronomer had spied a dark patch in the sky that occluded the nebula he was looking for. He tracked it over the course of a couple nights. It did not take him long to realize what it was, and he reported the discovery, excited, but otherwise nonplussed. The prospect of discovering an asteroid and getting to name it was an honour, but it wasn’t what he looked at the sky for. He wanted to see beauty, not darkness. He kept the discovery to himself, not wanting to tell others until it had been confirmed.

A few days later, he had been contacted by members of Mossad and the American F.B.I. They had brought him to a dark room in a dusty building on the edge of town. Sounds of traffic reverberated through the sheet metal walls, making the inside seem even more vacant. Fear had taken the amateur astronomer then, and he had prayed quietly for succour. Then the door opened, and two men sat down. They reminded him that he was not handcuffed, and they apologized for the dramatics of the situation.

They then very politely and carefully explained to him that the world was going to end. 

The astronomer paid little attention to what they said next. Only the basics were clear; top-level space agencies had done the projections for the asteroid’s course and calculated its size and mass. It was approximately one-and-a-half times as big as the Chicxulub impactor that had led to the death of the dinosaurs. Worse, it was due to impact the Earth in six months’ time. The estimated impact site was in the Alboran Sea, thirty kilometres south-south-east of Gibraltar. 

The agents then carefully asked the astronomer if he had told anyone else and he said no, he had wanted to wait. They asked him again and he said yes again. Then they asked him what he would name the asteroid. The astronomer thought for a minute and then said Abaddon, for surely they were looking at Hell itself. 

The agents nodded and said that this made sense. The American agent then withdrew a pistol and shot the astronomer in the head. They left that place and never came back.

The world could then be segmented into two different groups of people: those who knew and those who didn’t. Most of the world, billions and billions, continued on with their lives in complete ignorance of their coming annihilation. Only the most powerful – the very rich, politicians, certain super-celebrities – were told. Once they were told, they began to plan. 

There were two schools of thought on how to approach the crisis. Given that the most major impact event in human memory was the 2013 Chelyabinsk air burst, there was at first a significant misunderstanding to the severity of the coming event. It is difficult for the human mind to comprehend how an impact off the European and African coasts might trigger volcanic events in Indonesia. It cannot conceive of tsunamis taller than skyscrapers, nor can it understand the centuries of global cooling that would follow. It is not capable of working on such scales.

There were some who wanted to remain. They would build bunkers and live their whole lives underground if they had to, palaces of concrete beneath hundreds of feet of soil. Even the architects of these vaults were not sure whether the residents would survive, but some thought it a better hope than the alternative.

The alternative was the Terra.

The Terra had been named in memory of what it would lose and as a representation of what might be gained. The ship itself was little more than a tube with wings, an interstellar dragonfly; even the wings themselves – solar sails – had an iridescent sheen reminiscent of the insect. 

The two plans were put into motion. The rich descended into their bunkers, where the sheer amount of soil cut them off from communicating with one another. A generation would be born, live, and die underground. The remainder looked to the stars.

Proxima Centauri is the nearest star system to Earth at a mere thirty-eight trillion kilometres, a stone’s throw in cosmic terms. The solar sails of the Terra would gather the solar winds, allowing the Terra to approach a few percentage points of the speed of light. The journey would take approximately thirty years. There were a few complications, of course; the amount of provisions that could be stored was relatively small, given that the success of the solar sails depended on reducing mass as much as possible. This necessitated that the ship’s available weight be devoted primarily to cryogenic chambers where the passengers, pilgrims from a desolated world, might sleep until they reached their destination. Tickets cost tens of billions and were snapped up in an instant. The passengers were put to sleep, not to wake for thirty years. 

Only one person would wake during the long journey, to perform regular maintenance checks.  A single engineer. 

They left the Earth three days before impact. The engineer, who was now an astronaut, stayed awake long enough to watch. It was night when it happened. Fire consumed the land, and all of the glittering lights across the darkened globe disappeared.

–––––

The astronaut’s beard was longer now, and he had to pull himself through the ship carefully. Supplements had done little to ward off the bone decay that astronauts typically experienced during long voyages. He was sure that a doctor might have diagnosed him with osteo- something or other, but even an orthopaedic surgeon could not have afforded a spot aboard the Terra. 

He realized now, thinking back, how foolhardy the plan had been. What if there had been a system failure on his pod and he had drowned? What if he had developed some kind of cancer, or perhaps an embolism? One person to maintain humanity’s future was an almost psychotic level of idiocy. In a strange way, he was glad he didn’t have to worry about it anymore. 

The astronaut floated to the viewport with a palmful of soybeans in his hand. The colour was almost painfully brilliant in that stark space. He held it up to the viewport, wondering how something that green might be allowed to exist in all that dark. 

–––––

A memory of blood. Each pod opened carefully, thawed. A pool of blue water. The rich didn’t know that it was just colouring, something to make the whole process seem more advanced than it really was. Something to disguise the fact that they were just upjumped primates who had come too far from home.

One punch with the screwdriver to the throat. The holes were always perfectly round, not even ragged at the borders. Ruddy crimson bubbles would float and pop as the cryopod’s occupant aspirated. Death always followed, too many minutes later. The astronaut was sure that they never felt a thing, and he told himself as much.

He wondered if God could see this far, and if He understood that a man needed protein to survive.

–––––

Countless years passed, and the bodies began to disappear. When the astronaut was not eating or drinking or pissing or shitting, he hovered in a trance. His beard was white and now floated in a cloud of snow about his face. It was dirty and tangled and matted in places. He had tried talking to himself, but a hyper-awareness of the possibility of insanity had made him stop. There was nothing to do other than to look at unchanging maintenance readings or the void of space beyond the viewports.

The memory pushed itself up. He tried to push it back, but it was seared into him. How long ago had it been? How long since he had awoken for that first set of maintenance checks.?

He remembered. He remembered the last time he felt hope. The pod had opened, and he wasn’t dead. An indicator next to it told him that a year had passed. A year since the Earth had died. All he had to do now was do his checks, then he could sleep for another year. He practically raced through the ship, scratching at the scruff around his face. His limbs were sore and cramped but his heart was full. He would survive! There was a future. Faces of his comrades looked out from their cryopods with shuttered eyes. Behind them, the whirr of the hydroponic array churned on, generating bulbs that would then be frozen and planted on the new world waiting for them. 

All checks were green, of course. The astronaut, who used to be an engineer, was impressed. In his experience, the rich loved to cut corners to save as much as they could. The fact that the Terra operated so smoothly told him that exceptions had been made in this case. Reassured, the astronaut floated back to the aft end of the ship. 

It was then that he saw it. An abyssal feeling of emptiness tore itself open inside him. 

Outside the port viewport, the solar sail soared out of view, a paper-thin skyscraper that reflected the blizzard of light from inside the ship. 

On the starboard side, there was nothing. Nothing save for a gnarled mess of metal and plastic where the sail had been. 

The astronaut felt his brain flood with adrenaline. Time slowed. A thousand connections and implications began firing in his brain, the neurons driving as quickly as they could, calculating, hypothesizing, all coming to the inevitable conclusion that there had evidently been some sort of accident and that he was now lost somewhere in interstellar space between a dead world and his destination.
Outside of the viewport, the stars peered back without blinking.

–––––

He never dreamed of land anymore. Just the sea and the lighthouse. That’s all there was.

–––––

The astronaut had tried, of course, to calculate the distance. But there were too many variables, and he wasn’t a physicist. All of the physicists had been left behind on this project, outbid for their seats after being promised that their work would be their salvation. The cryopods on this ship only had room for the truly important. The astronaut himself had been spared by virtue of his necessity; they simply could not make the journey without an on-board engineer.

The stars didn’t even look the same so far from Earth. Constellations were largely similar, for in a cosmic sense, he had only crossed the street. But everything was slightly off, and it made his measurements difficult. Complicating it further was that he had no sense of how the destruction of the Terra’s starboard sail might have affected their course. It was possible that, even if he got in the cryotube now, the ship might never arrive at Proxima Centauri. It would instead miss entirely, travelling beyond into an inconceivable emptiness.

The astronaut did the best he could. He used the ship’s readings to determine that the loss of the sail had had a massive negative effect on the speed of the ship. He ran numbers again and again, desperate to change them. But they never changed. 

It would take the Terra approximately forty-nine thousand, six hundred and twenty years to reach Proxima Centauri – or at least where he hoped it would be.

The astronaut looked at these notes for a long time. Then he tore them up. Bits of paper like two-dimensional gnats floated about his head. It was against regulation to tear up paper. The pieces might find their way into something important.

The astronaut watched them float away, wishing he could too.

–––––

Bones decayed and splintered. The mind frayed. The astronaut lived on. It was his duty. Not for the passengers, but for everybody else who didn’t get a chance.

–––––

He drifted now over a bed of dying plants, a sea of  autumnal yellows and golds that never belonged in this place.

Was he wrong to have spared his own life? Hopelessness is one thing, but there’s a far cry between ending a life and ending a species. Could he bear that burden?

He wondered again how far God could see.

–––––

Decades passed. The astronaut was asleep when the lights went out and floated emaciated and frail in a white-and-grey cloud, swallowed by his own beard. The sudden change prompted him to wake. The ship’s power had finally failed. Not even the core of the ship, the centripetal wheel, remained powered. The astronaut probed his mind, trying to remember what he had forgotten. What did this mean for the recyclers? For his air, for his water? Panic threatened to rise in his chest but couldn’t muster the effort. It disappeared as quickly as it had come.

The Terra was black and dead. The only light now from the stars. The astronaut floated to the viewport, pulling himself in with gnarled arthritic hands. He stayed there and looked out with ancient red eyes. He watched the stars as long as he could. 

They looked so much like lighthouses. 

#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