Gabe walked out hand in hand with the girl from the party. Her name was Jessica, he thought. It had been loud inside, and he was always terrible with names. He did know that she was pretty, laughed at his jokes, and kept smiling at him all night. Those, for the moment, were certainly more important than names.
“You know how they do those stupid human trick shows and stuff?” he asked her. It was cold out, and he remembered seeing the words coalesce in the early morning darkness.
She pulled her arms around her and nodded. “Yeah, like burping the alphabet backwards or fitting into a shoebox or something?”
“Yeah, that kind of stuff.” He paused and gave her a smile he hoped came across as intriguing and not creepy as it felt. “I’ve got one of my own.”
He could almost see the eye roll. And to be fair, it did sound like a bad pick-up line, now that he played it back. But that wasn’t the point. The bad pick-up line would come later. “Not like that,” he added quickly, the false bravado and charm fading away.
She took a step or two away, looking at him with a subtle smile. Then she raised an eyebrow. “Show me.”
He smiled. “Okay, look up at the sky and pick a star,” he explained, hurrying over to stand just behind and to the side of her.
“Alright, that one,” she said with finality.
“Can you point to it? So I know which one?”
“Well, this isn’t going to be much of a magic trick if I show you my star, but sure.” She lifted her arm and pointed to a middling bright star in the middle of the sky.
“Good choice,” he said thoughtfully, then raised his arm. “Keep your eye on that star, and—“ he extended his finger, pointing to the star as well. “Poof.”
Like that, the star blinked out, leaving a little patch of black in the sky.
“Whoa, did you just—can you do it again?”
He laughed, then answered her. “Yeah, of course. Choose another one.”
She did, and they repeated the process. Four times total.
“That’s amazing. I mean, you just point and they disappear?”
“Yeah,” he said, with insincere humility, “just something that I’ve been able to do since I was a kid. Don’t show off too much or else the government might track me down.” She leaned back against him, staring up at the sky with its covering of stars that now seemed not quite so far away. “And if you think that’s impressive, “ he said, leaning close to her ear, “you should see what else these fingers can do.”
And there was the bad pick-up line.
It was later, lying in bed, that Jessica—that was her name, he had confirmed surreptitiously—brought the trick up again.
“So, like, do the stars just stay out or…?”
He blinked his eyes open and shifted his position, trying to stay focused despite a wave of grogginess. “No, they come back, at least by the next night or so. I’ve never really timed it.”
“And you can just do that? Like, you weren’t hit on the head with a meteor or born in a spaceship or anything?”
“Not that I know of. Just found out when I went star watching with my grandpa one year.”
“And you primarily use this power to get women to sleep with you?”
“What?” he asked, a hint of offense coloring his words. “I definitely do not do that. It’s just that the only people I trust with my secret ability are those that are willing to sleep with me. I can’t just let everyone know I’m the world’s most useless superhero. If my secret identity got out,” he chuckled and let the sentence hang incomplete, settling comfortably into the pillows.
“Well, your secret is safe with me,” she said, rolling over and pulling the covers around her contentedly.
Gabe closed his eyes, breathing a deep sigh as he let the drowsiness take over. He was nearly asleep again when her voice broke through.
“But what if there are, like, planets round those stars?”
He shook his head, as if that would shake off the sleepy feeling. “Planets?” he asked, trying to quickly replay the last few seconds to make sure he knew what she said. “I’m sure there are planets around them. Aren’t there tons of planets out there?”
“Yeah, yeah, but” she sat up, suddenly looking excited, “but what if there are people on the planets? And you just turned out their sun?”
“Oh no,” he said, throwing his arm over his face and rolling to the side with theatrics. “I picked up the crazy chick. Don’t tell me you believe in aliens.”
She gave him a playful push on the shoulder, laughing herself. This was one of those moments he would go back to after their relationship eventually dissolved. Her in the bed, hair tousled, eyes sleepy, but a wide smile on her face as she laughed. Through the laughter, she thought out her response. “I mean, no, not really, but who knows, right? There’s so much out there, and—“
“Listen, if there are aliens out there, they can come and ask for an apology. I’ll give it to them. But I think it is mighty suspicious that sightings of aliens have dropped now that everyone has a handy camera with them 24/7. So I think I’m safe.”
And yet, here he was.
The abduction didn’t happen like it did in the movies. There was no blinding white light or tractor beam. And Gabe was pretty sure he was not paralyzed, at least not physically. It was, however, very much like those kidnapping movies that took off for a while. A bunch of shadows in his bedroom that suddenly lunged and grabbed him on all sides, sliding something bag-like over his head, and then carrying him out of the house. Gabe heard the door squeak shut behind them, the sound of too many feet on the gravel, and then an electronic whoosh and snap sound. The air around him was cooler, not the humid summer heat, and the light making its way through whatever was on his head was brighter. He felt cold ground beneath him as they set him down, then everything stopped.
His heart was still pounding in his chest, a rapid beat that threatened to burst right out of his chest. He tried taking everything in, tried making the shadows he had seen match anything plausible. He was being kidnapped, that was certain, but he had a very unsettling feeling it was not by anyone or anything he had encountered before.
“You can remove the hood,” said a voice. The sound of English made his heart slow a pace or two. They spoke English. So that meant it was unlikely anything as absurd as his mind had raced to.
“I can leave it on, if you prefer. You know, so I don’t know who you are. So you don’t have to kill me.” The words poured out of his mouth, sounding stupider than he thought.
A sigh. “I’d prefer to speak to you directly.”
Gabe grabbed the hood and lifted it off in a fumbling motion. And as his eyes adjusted to the bright light, the conversation so long ago with Jessica came rushing back.
In the movies, abductions use tractor beams. In the movies, aliens are vaguely humanoid. Gabe was discovering both of these were simply Hollywood magic and nothing at all related to reality.
The gathering of being stood around his cage. There were five of them—no six. One had no form at all, but did appear to be a collection of moving haze. One at least had clear legs, though there were four of them. He could generally find eyes in their various places on the beings, and some had indentions that Gabe thought could possibly be mouths. But beyond that, his understanding of their anatomy stopped. Despite the bright lights, the room started to go dark around the edges. Then the middle. Then everywhere.
The room was still cold and bright when Gabe awoke, and there was a hum of activity off to the side. He was not in his bedroom, which meant something had happened, but it most certainly could not be those things swimming to the surface of his mind.
Voices. He tried to focus on them, if only to stop the spinning in his head.
-not what we really were expecting.”
“Does it really matter what this creature is like? It’s dangerous!”
“I just don’t think we should make any sort of rash decision.”
“No one is suggesting we act rashly but just—“
“Me. I suggest we act rashly. Who knows? It could wipe us all out before we even—“
“Now we have no reason to think—“
“You don’t get to just—“
The voices began to meld into a stream of babble and yelling that was indistinguishable. Gabe slowly rolled over, letting himself finally take a look at his surroundings.
It was, unfortunately, exactly as he remembered. A white room, bars surrounding him, and a menagerie of completely alien creatures standing in a huddled mass to the side.
Eventually one of them—some creature with what looked like tentacles and apparently a mouth that opened by splitting their head widely down the middle—noticed he was moving.
“It has awoken,” it said, a sharp tone of panic in its voice. The others turned quickly to stare at him.
“Earthling,” said one of them, taking a step towards him. This one had four legs, three long protrusions with what looked like eyeballs, and no discernible mouth. Nothing moved when he spoke, but Gabe heard it clearly. “We have been sent to neutralize you.”
“You speak English,” Gabe gawked, his mind trying desperately to help him see that was not the important part here. The alien’s face fell, as did the others, and Gabe was amazed to discover he could recognize disdain in completely alien features. Perhaps that was another superpower he possessed.
“Our ship automatically translates all language into something you can understand.”
Curiously, Gabe also discovered that the same disappointed tone was also easily interpreted. He sat staring and they stared back at him. Now that he had a chance to see them without passing out, he realized they were all wearing what looked like armor of some sort. The pieces were all different, fit to their physiology, but made of some thick, dark, shiny substance. They were some sort of military squadron? Or pirates? Or space cops?
His mind finally ran through and processed what had been said to him before, and panic shot through his system. “Wait, neutralize?”
“He got there!” said one of the creatures, though Gabe did not look quickly enough to tell who. From the gestures being made, he thought it might have been amorphous creature standing towards the back and cycling through different colors, but he could not be sure.
The four-legged alien spoke again. “Yes, that is our mission. We have been sent to save our homes and neutralize you. By whatever means necessary.”
“I think you have the wrong person. I just work in a call center. I don’t have anything to do with aliens.”
“So you aren’t the one who keeps extinguishing our stars?”
Had he been on Earth, Gabe was certain this would be a good time to request a lawyer. But, with aliens, he was not sure if the idea of a lawyer even translated. Or was an option. They had just kidnapped him, after all. Or was it an arrest? He felt out of his depth.
“Can I plead the fifth? Is that a thing?”
The gathered group turned toward one another, then back to him. “That is not an answer. Have you extinguished our stars?”
One of the group stepped forward slightly. Its face, or what Gabe liked to think of as its face, was covered in a smattering of shiny, black spheres. Most likely eyes, but this was all a learning exercise for him. The sides of its head suddenly lifted, two large wing-like appendages stretching into the air. These were connected to the rest of it by shimmering strands of something. It stood there, waiting.
“What would happen if I had?”
“This is going to take all day, Devlox.” Now Gabe was sure it was the large amorphous creature. It turned a striking shade of maroon with impatience.
“We have plenty of time before we reach home system. If it takes many days, it takes many days.”
“Home system?” said Gabe, sitting up straighter and feeling his heart begin to race again. “You mean we’re leaving Earth?”
“Yes, we left some time ago. As soon as we boarded, actually,” responded Devlox. Gabe felt a little better. This…being was at least willing to be reasonable. To answer questions. The good cop, thought Gabe. And bad cop was back there. But that still left a lot of undecided creatures in the wings.
“But then what if it’s not me?”
The collection of haze spoke. Its voice was in the ship, but Gabe also seemed to feel it resonating through him. All in all, it was a very unpleasant situation. “Earthling, we already know it is you. Devlox and his kind are more…skeptical of modern technology.”
“I’m simply not willing to base such a decision on the advice of a machine, Cylantha. There is nothing wrong with being diligent.”
Cylantha sighed, which felt similar to a strong wind pushing against Gabe’s body. “Yes, but this whole interrogation is simply to satisfy you.”
“Fine,” Devlox stomped back, a feat Gabe noted was more impressive with more legs. “Then what do you suggest we do? Go ahead and execute it?”
The amorphous creature turned a shade of green that Gabe felt very unsettled by. “That’s the easiest way, yes.”
Another, tinier voice spoke up as a rather short, squid-like creature piped up. “It is wrong to kill another creature. We must find another way”
“Wrong to kill a creature that could wipe out all our planets in an instant? That’s wrong?” spoke the tentacle creature that had first alerted them to Gabe’s consciousness.
“It always brought them back,” added the little one, not shrinking down from the intimidating figure. “Right?” he asked, turning toward Gabe.
“Well, I mean, I guess so. I didn’t really do anything, you see.”
“So you mean to say you didn’t extinguish the stars?” asked Devlox.
“I guess, I mean, I did. I didn’t mean to. Well, I meant to, but I didn’t mean to hurt anyone.”
“And you brought them back?” added Devlox.
“They just, always came back. I didn’t have to do anything.”
The creature with the wing-like appendages and many eyes stepped back, the wings folding back in. “It is telling the truth,” it said in a monotone. Somehow, that did not seem to help.
The large creature now stepped forward. “You mean to tell me you just hoped they would come back?” it roared, skin flashing all shades of dark blue and purple.
“You just hoped it would work?” squeaked the tiny creature with a hurt, accusing tone. Gabe shrank back more from the disappointment than the rage. He had always been susceptible to a good guilt trip.
There was a push of wind, something from Cylantha, Gabe assumed, and the group quieted. It was silent, and in that silence Gabe felt guilt pouring over him. The only solution was to break that silence. “So you are telling me I’ve been turning your sun off and on for all these years?”
“Yes,” came the exasperated sigh from most of the seven assembled beings. It was not in unison, but almost.
“And you had no idea what you were doing?” asked Devlox. Gabe noticed that the wing flaps were back up.
“I knew if I pointed at a star, it would blink out. And then come back later. I had no idea there were aliens—“ he watched the whole room recoil at that word—“up there. I never wanted to hurt anyone.”
“It is telling the truth,” came the same monotone report as the wings closed again.
“So you just kept doing it? With no thought to the consequences?” asked Cylantha.
“I didn’t know anyone else was out there.”
“So this is the great Destroyer,” said Devlox, pacing across the ship. Again, it was remarkable to Gabe how universal disappointment seemed to be. “Sorry there will be no need for an honor duel, Antu,” it finished, waving to the amorphous creature who had settled into a silvery green shade.
“It would not be much of a fight,” snapped back Antu.
“Do we have to kill him, then?” squeaked the squid-like creature. Devlox looked to the group.
“I don’t know,” said the weary creature after a moment. “Things are not going according to the plan.”
“How did you get your powers?” asked Cylantha, wafting forward toward the bars. “Did you purchase them? Performa a ritual? Defeat a great enemy?”
Gabe shrugged, then realized that might not translate to a group of beings with no shoulders to speak of. “I don’t know. I just always could.”
“And you never found that odd?” asked the hazy form again.
“I mean, sure, it was a weird trick. I’d show people sometimes and they’d be amazed. But I tried not to make a big deal out of it. Sounds like it caused you all a lot of problems.”
“Well, mass panic intermittently, irregularities in temperature and gravitational fields, and the crushing despair that one day Kav’nu may not return,” bristled a blue-shaded Antu.
“I’m sorry,” said Gabe.
“See, it’s sorry everyone. We can just forgive it and go on with our lives,” squeaked the squid.
All three of Devlox’s eye stalks peered down at the tiny thing, blinking slowly. “That’s not how this works, Meerk. It could still destroy us all.”
“But it said it’s sorry.”
“And I am sorry. I promise, now that I know, I won’t do it again.” Gabe began to foolishly hope that this tactic might actually work, given his sincerity.
“Oh, we will be sure of that,” said Devlox, eyes returning forward.
“You’re going to kill me?” Gabe whispered.
“Not yet. But we are going to keep an eye on you. You say it happens when you point? Wait, Viremat,” Devlox gestured to the thing with many eyes that stepped forward, raising the flaps on its head again. “It only happens when you point at a star?”
“Speak,” ordered Cylantha.
“Yes,” squeaked Gabe, feeling so many eyes on him.
“It speaks the truth.”
Devlox took a deep breath. “Alright then, Antu, get something to hold its arms down. We’ve got a long trip ahead of us.”
Thanks for reading!
I haven’t written in a long time. I’ve dabbled here and there, but this was one of the first times I sat down with an idea and just got to get it out there. I typed it up on my day off, gave it a read through and made some adjustments, but I’m just so happy that I got something done! This is an idea that I had in the first few weeks after my little girl was born. Those were some rough weeks and, despite being tired, my anxiety was doing a great job ensuring I was not sleeping. “Sleep when the baby sleeps.” Haha, okay then.
I started developing this idea then, after singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to her. And having something to think about, a world to play with, it made me start to feel better. So I really wanted to get back to this and flesh out this character. It’s changed a lot from where it started, but I think it was a fun idea to play with. It’s what I needed then, and what I needed now to help me do something just for me.
Carver had been saved many times in his life by humanity’s unrelenting reliance on rationality. It may not have always appeared rational, but no matter how many people jumped at shadows, some reasonable voice always served to draw them back to the natural, the possible, the explainable. Except, of course, when it better served their interests to fuel the fire. Carver let that certainty steady his hands.
Whimpers reached his ears, a sound that almost seemed to hum like a background drone in the drama of his life. Whimpers, pleas, and cries of despair were a chorus he conducted, melding seamlessly with the ebb and flow of day-to-day.
He tightened his hands around the victim’s throat. Blonde, blue-eyed, middle-aged, and found putting flowers on a gravestone. She fit the criteria, and so he completed his task with professional indifference. The whimpers quieted as his hands compressed, eventually dying away completely as the woman followed suit. Always give it a few extra seconds after you think they’re out, he thought to himself. It was a lesson you only had to learn once or twice before it stuck.
Once she stopped moving and stayed stopped, he let his grip relax and pulled his notebook from his back pocket. Turning to the last page, he reviewed the criteria to ensure he would not miss a step. That was also a lesson learned quickly after one or two mistakes.
“Only the vile may turn away death, those who by their very stench offend him. Thrice snuff the life of the childless mother, drive his mark into her bones. Under moonlight on the sacred stones, curse the ground and seed with rot.”
Just as he remembered. He felt a peace settle into his bones as he returned to the ritual, walking through the steps he had completed twice before. He was almost certain, at least, that “snuff” suggested strangling—it usually did, at least. Then again, it was a translation through about four languages he might be the only person left alive to speak, so assuming anything about it was true was a risk. Still, he pulled the knife from his waist and began to cut through to her sternum—that would give him ample room to work.
It was a messy business carving death’s sign into the bone, and he had to be mindful not to nick himself. With improvements in DNA technology, his job had gotten increasingly harder. But the internet had certainly been a boon. Life had taught him that there was some truth in the stale axiom to take the good with the bad. He smiled as he finished the mark.
Now to drive to the sacred spot. He had located three places of spiritual significance in local legend, and his experience said those would work sufficiently. The last was only a few miles away. Carver lifted the limp body from the ground, taking a moment to kick the dirt over the bloodstain forming. There were clouds overhead and rain in the forecast, so the likelihood of anyone finding this location was dropping by the moment.
He hefted her into the back of the truck, closed the tailgate, and settled himself into the front. The vehicle rumbled to life and he drove down the access road back toward the highway, his eye on the GPS as he joined the flow of so many other souls twisting through the arteries of the country this late at night. No one thought a thing. Eventually he turned off, followed a maze of turns, and ended at a scenic overlook. The night was heavy around him, but it was the only companion he had. Well, that and the corpse he hoisted from the bed.
It was a treacherous climb down, and the added weight threatened to send him tumbling. Something else that would not be a first. He finally reached the clearing next to the large stones. At some point, according to the area’s history at least, there had been sacred carvings and native runes etched into the surrounding stones. Now they sat weathered and moss covered. But it met criteria, and that was his only concern.
Carver dropped the body without a glance, letting it lie there in a tangle of limbs. There were no specifications on the arrangement of the body that he was aware of. Now, he just needed to “curse the ground.” Pulling a bag of salt from his pack, he proceeded to throw it liberally around the body. Now, all that needed to happen was her body to begin to decay, finishing the process. The location was certainly removed enough to delay someone stumbling on the site. Then again, such things had happened before.
He would be gone before anyone found it, of course, just as he always was. The locals would assume a serial killer in their midst, spend a few weeks or months searching for whoever was abducting these women. And Carver would be on to his next city, running out the clock on this ritual and searching for the next one that would serve to lengthen his life.
Immortality was a devious lie, he thought as he rejoined the flow of traffic towards some unknown destination. Hundreds of secret texts and sacred rituals promised immortality, but he had yet to find one that delivered. Each seemed to give him some handful of extra years, but invariably he again found the effect wearing off. And he had yet to find one that was repeatable. It seemed Death was a wily creature, prone to learning the tricks of his prey and using that to hunt them down.
How many, he wondered. It was not a good idea to try and count, because the number was dizzying. It seemed each culture had its own promise of immortality, and he was running out of options. Six dismembered here, three stabbed, nine decapitated, two drowning, and the list went on. He had found many creative ways to end the lives of random innocents—mostly innocents, he corrected as he thought about a few that required the blood of the damned.
And he was saved time and again by human rationality. It was so much easier to believe that it was the work of a killer, each one representing one depraved mind. It was harder to think about some killer traipsing through the ages, winding across countries and tracing the globe, killing randomly and without pattern. It would require someone to imagine that immortality might exist, that all these seemingly random touches—carved signs, salt, missing organs, ashes, clothing, placement, and a dozen other variables he tracked meticulously—were in fact part of some larger plan. The playbook written by all of humanity and being followed by one truly devout believer.
And Carver knew he could always rely on rationality to help him elude suspicion. The same way no one thought too hard about how he appeared not to age, at least until he just suddenly moved away. New faces, new people, new names, and a new life. And if ever someone began to suspect something was going wrong, well, in this age of reason, they simply dismissed it with a host of poor excuses.
Two weeks later, and he still had not felt that familiar surge of power and energy course through him signifying the ritual had been accomplished and years had been credited to him. He followed the news; no bodies had been discovered, at least none of his. Which meant the ground was now truly seeded now with the rot of the three, yet something had not worked. Maybe a bad ritual, maybe he misinterpreted. And so he flipped through archives of ancient tablets, cave paintings, and scrolls. Most were indecipherable to the average person, but if you grew up speaking the language, it was far simpler.
On to another ritual, another way to leapfrog ahead of Death. He pushed away the thought of what might happen when the trail finally ran cold and Death caught his long awaited prize. As long as there were options out there, he was certain he would not let that happen.
Ah, there was a promising looking one….
Welcome to October! I’m probably not doing 13 days of spooky stories again, but if you’d like to read those from last year, click here! Either way, I needed to write something. I don’t super love this, but I think it could be worse. I like the idea, the concept of a serial killer who’s only motive is following ancient rituals to gain “immortality.” I thought of it while listening to a podcast on unsolved mysteries (Thinking Sideways, for those curious). the hosts were discussing potential highway killers and the idea of MOs and signatures of killers. And this idea came up. I don’t know about execution though. I’m actually wondering if this might be better told from the perspective of someone following the killer’s trail….hm….maybe we’ll revisit.
But, again, this helped break a streak of writer’s block I’ve been feeling. I just wrote to write, and here we go. If you have thoughts, suggestions, or any other general feedback, leave it in the comments.
As always, happy reading! And a very spooky October to you!!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
The end for our town came with neither the promised bang nor whimper. It came with silence, presumably sometime in the middle of the night when most of us were sleeping and those few awake were focused on other, seemingly more important, things. I don’t know who first discovered what was happening, but everyone knew something must be wrong when the internet stopped working. No one in town could get a signal in or out. Cell towers must be down, was the first thought. Or maybe some big power outage in the local big city. Our small town was mostly just a parasite, sucking down resources from the city to thrive in relative isolation. But that also meant that anything happening there without fail trickled over to us in due time. And with the internet down, there was no immediate way to figure out what that might be.
Things for me, at least, took a turn from annoying to bizarre when Judy Calvin stumbled in to the local diner—I was in there for my morning coffee before trudging down to the local grocery to start my shift. She worked in the city doing something—accounting, maybe? But she came in that morning looking pale and wide-eyed. Without a word, she slipped into a booth, sliding her bag and jacket across from her. From a distance, I could see her lips moving, but as far as I could tell she wasn’t saying a word. It was certainly an unsettling sight to see. I usually ran into her at the local farmer’s market, smiling and bubbly with an arm load of produce. This was certainly different.
Lorene, co-owner and unshakeable waitress at the greasy spoon, made her way over to the table with a pot of coffee and a tepid smile. Customer service, always, but caution most of all. Lorene had seen her fair share of bad stuff—being on the edge of town meant she had seen a lot of trash tumble in and out in her time.
“Looks like a rough morning, Judy,” she began, pouring a cup of coffee without waiting for the request. “Need me to get anyone?”
Judy’s eyes swung up to look at Lorene, and finally sound starting to trickle out of her lips. I still was too far away to hear clearly, and judging by Lorene’s face, she wasn’t faring much better.
“Sorry, what now, hun? Do you need me to call David? Maybe see if someone can take you down to Doc Linehan this morning? You don’t look so good and—“
The volume increased, now a frantic whisper that snaked across the surprisingly quiet diner. Everyone seemed to be straining to hear. We were a small town, so gossip was mostly our lifeblood. And this would be a story worth a few rounds of drinks at The Watering Hole later on.
“The road is gone.” Those were the first words I heard. The first sign to me that this was something more than small town gossip. She hadn’t hit a hitchhiker with her car, come across a deer carcass, or been chased by some local hoodlums. She had either had a significant mental break, or something unheard of was going on. I’m writing this down for posterity, so I guess you can imagine which it was.
“I was driving to work, and it just disappeared. It was there, and then there was nothing. I was in the nothing. The road is gone. It’s just gone.” Her voice was steadily rising in volume as she spoke, and I watched as my fellow nosy patrons began to shift with the same discomfort rolling through me.
“There’s nothing there!” she yelled now, then took a deep breath. “Nothing.” With that, she quieted again, back to the silent whispers that echoed only in her own mind. Lorene stepped away from the table, her normally imperturbable demeanor showing just the hint of a crack. “Lucas,” she snapped to the boy behind the counter trying to look busy refilling patron’s coffee mugs that had evaporated under his distracted gaze. “I need you to call Doc Linehan and Sheriff Marsh. I think Judy might need some help.”
“But the phone’s are down,” he replied dumbly.
I had always admired the steel in Lorene, and it came out now. “Well, we got someone here who needs help. I suggest you start running to town and get back as quick as you can.”
The boy pulled off his apron and set aside the coffee in an instant, spurred into movement by her decisive leadership.
“And Doris,” called Lorene as she made her way behind the counter.” Doris’s grey-haired head peaked from kitchen window, as if she hadn’t been listening the whole time. “Get a breakfast plate rolling for Mrs. Calvin here.” As she turned back to the counter, I heard her mutter under her breath, “There’s not much a full belly can’t at least help.” Then she took to wiping down the counter, one eyes watching Judy who only moved her lips in some silent chant.
I looked at my watch. Assuming Lucas kept his pace—and I somehow had no doubt he would—it would be at least 20 minutes before he returned. Assuming, of course, the Sheriff was in the station and Doc was not meeting with a patient already. That would put me at least 10 minutes late for my shift. I knew I needed to leave, but also knew that this was the kind of event Mack would understand me missing for. Or, if not, at least the kind of event that meant my shifts at the grocery would mean very little very soon.
I sipped my coffee—Lorene refilled it without ever looking at me. The diner had gone quiet with everyone waiting for the mystery to unfold. My money was on drugs, then. Someone had slipped something into Judy’s breakfast, leaving her to experience a fantastically upsetting trip halfway on the way to work. But there was something about her demeanor, the silence and terror, that left some primal doubt wriggling in my mind. Lorene took the plate from the window after a few minutes, setting it gently on the table in front of Judy who never looked at it.
In fifteen minutes, the chime over the door rang and Lucas strolled in with the Sheriff and Doc Linehan. I had not estimated them hitching a ride in the Sheriff’s cruiser, though I suppose I should have. For a moment, I felt more at ease knowing the professionals were here now to sort out what was going on. But that faded when I saw how serious the Sheriff looked. He knew something about this, and he didn’t like it. Doc Linehan followed behind a few steps, smiling at the patrons as she entered with that comforting smile she brought to all her patients. We were lucky she stuck around to start a practice, I suppose, when she could have made much more money opening up in some big hospital somewhere.
“Mrs. Davis,” said the Sheriff with a gentle tone that contrasted the determined look in his eyes. “I hear you may have seen something this morning—“
“The road’s gone, Tripp,” she said in a flat monotone, not looking up. Gone was the urgency, the desperation in her voice. The Sheriff glanced over at Doc, both of them exchanging knowing glances. Drugs, I felt the certainty increase.
“I was driving, and it was there. Then it wasn’t.”
“And where’s your car, Mrs. Davis?” he asked, cutting her off.
Now she turned to look at him, a fresh wave of terror washing over her features. “I—I got out to look. See what was going on. I only took a few steps away and it—it was gone, too.”
Sheriff Marsh sighed, then grabbed at the walkie on his shoulder. “Got another one, Jessi. Can you find Shawn Calvin? Have him come down to Lorene’s to pick up his wife.” He took a few steps away, pulling out the notebook he kept in his front pocket to jot down some notes. Doc Linehan slid into the booth next to Judy, her warm smile beginning to break through the layers of frozen terror holding her captive. There was quiet, muted conversation before the doctor began to make a cursory exam. Checking pupils, taking temperature, measuring pulse, all while smiling.
I was truly late for my shift, but that seemed less important now. Judy was another. That meant something big was going on. However, it seemed unlikely I was going to learn much more here. Down the road—and clearly within walking distance—was where the real mystery lay. I left a few dollars on the counter, waved at Lorene who didn’t seem to notice, and made my way out the door.
It was a nice morning—early fall, a bit cool, but sunny and pleasant. Outside of the diner, the intrigue began to fade. I probably owed it to Mack to show up and help him with the morning rush. He’d enjoy the gossip, I was sure, and I could catch up on it later. Being a busybody had never really suited me, even if that was the primary pastime in a small town. I already felt a bit ashamed of my open gawking in the diner. Here was someone having a rough time, and there was me staring at the sideshow.
Hands in pockets, I made my way back towards the center of town and the grocery store where I had worked since high school. It wasn’t much, but it was a living, as they said. Being single, childless, and living in a small town, I seemed like the perfect candidate to move about and try to strike it rich anywhere else. But I had inherited my parent’s house, knew the town, and had a stable, relatively stress-free job, I always figured I was already living the dream. Besides, what small town didn’t need a few cranky spinsters for the kids to someday call Old Witch So-and-So. Live wasn’t glorious, but I certainly was happy.
I arrived at the grocery to see a few folks already waiting outside. The front doors were still locked, the lights were off. Mack lived a ways out of town on a piece of land large enough to nearly need its own postal code. He liked the isolation. But that meant if there was some sort of problem on the road, he’d be tied up. Maybe there was flooding out somewhere? I hadn’t heard any storms roll through last night, but weather had always been a bit fickle. Or maybe just some heavy fog bogging things down?
Heavy enough Judy Calvin lost her car in it? Whispered some doubting voice in the back of my mind, but I quieted it as I smiled at the soon-to-be customers.
“Cassie, finally, can you let us in? I’ve got to pick up a few things for the Town Hall lunch today and—“
I smiled and shrugged, effectively cutting off the conversation. “You know Mack as well as I do, Gloria. He’s not trusting the keys to the shop to anyone. Might make off with all the merchandise, ya’ know?”
She didn’t smile back, but crossed the gravel lot to her car. LuAnne and George were also waiting, but seemed satisfied enough with my response. I watched as George plugged in headphones and leaned against the wall. LuAnne simply sat on the hood of her car and watched the road, as if that would bring Mack in any sooner.
I glanced at my phone. Still no bars, still just as good as a paperweight. It was twenty minutes past opening now with no sign of Mack. He was probably trying to call, but not much good that would do him.
The autumn morning began shifting into a summer late morning. The sun was out in full force and began to bake the ground as I sat and waited. LuAnne and George had wandered off after a bit. Gloria had asked me four times if I could let her in, steaming a bit more each time. Finally she climbed into her car and said she’d drive to the city to get what she needed, but she’d let Mack know just what she thought about his service. I wished her well and waved her off. Now it was just me, waiting. It was an hour past opening and the lights stayed off.
I grabbed a newspaper from beside the door—yesterday’s edition, meaning whatever it was kept even the paper boy from making it in—and scribbled a note on it.
“Mack—been waiting here. I heard there’s problems on the road. Went to check with Sheriff Marsh. Be back soon. –C. “ I wedged it into the door, then began a slow walk back to the diner, the last place I had seen the sheriff. Lorene was at her post when I arrived, but the diner was far emptier than it had been.
“Do you know where the Sheriff went?” I asked as I entered the pleasantly cool establishment.
She smiled. “Took most of my customers with him to see what was what with this road issue. Headed that way,” she said, pointing out of town. Guess you’re off to sneak a peek as well.”
I shrugged. “Mack’s not here. Guess he must have gotten stuck, too. Didn’t know if the Sheriff had heard anything or if he had a key so I could open up for the day. Mack’d hate it, but, ya’ know, people need to eat.”
“That they do,” she said with a chuckle in her voice. “Well, best of luck.” Maybe the last bit of levity I can recall.
The road trailed down through some trees, and I followed it, staying to the side to avoid any oncoming traffic. But it was silent, only the sounds of birds chirping and squirrels darting through the underbrush. Quiet enough that I was stunned when I rounded a corner and stumbled across what seemed to be about a quarter of the town’s population. There was Gloria, gaping from beside her car. Looked like her trip to town turned out well. The Sheriff was there, staring ahead, along with a goodly number of my companions from the diner. Even Lucas had made his way down. And they were all staring at…nothing.
And when I say nothing, I mean nothing. It wasn’t white or black or dark or anything it just wasn’t…anything. I can’t describe what nothing looks like because there aren’t any features to pin it on. It’s more like some deep level of consciousness that sees emptiness and knows. The road was there, and then it wasn’t. The trees waved in a breeze, limbs momentarily existing and vanishing as they crossed that invisible boundary. And we all stared, not sure what to make of this impossibility.
“What is it?” came the stupid question from my mouth. Lucas opened and closed his mouth. The Sheriff turned and looked at me. “Not sure. But seems like it’s got us a bit cut off.”
“I’d say. Anyone walked into it?”
“A few folks, those that got surprised by it. I think Mrs. Calvin said she spent a few minutes wandering in it before showing up at Lorene’s this morning,” said the Sheriff as if this were nothing more than a sudden rainstorm that cropped up.
“Does it—does it end?”
“Don’t know,” he shrugged. “Guess that’s something we need to find out.”
He marched over to his cruiser, popping the trunk and shuffling around. A moment later, with a slam that seemed to bounce off the wall of nothing, he returned with a rope.
He waved to a couple of the gathered folks, handing the end of the rope to Frank Jordan, the deputy. Frank was a good, down to earth sort of fellow. He seemed to be taking everything in shocked, but resolute stride. “I’ll need you to hold on to this end here,” the Sheriff said, passing Frank one end of the rope. “I’ll tie the other around me, and that way I don’t get lost out there.” He ran the rope through his belt loops, securing it with a secure, Boy Scout approved knot. “If I tug twice, like this,” he demonstrated briefly, “then I want you all to start pulling and bring me back in. Got it?” We all nodded, and he glanced around, seeming to make eye contact with everyone. We were all responsible now. The reality that this was something unknown, unexplainable, impossible was all beginning to settle in on me in those moments, numbness creeping up my body like that nothingness appeared to creep along the road.
Frank held on, nodding sharply to the Sheriff who began to make his way into the nothing. One moment, he was there. The next, he vanished from view. Frank held the rope, and my eyes watched as it slowly snaked out further and further. I’m not sure I even breathed in those minutes as the line slowly wound out. Then, there was a tug—once, twice. Frank began pulling, all of us latching on to the rope and reeling it in. The rope felt light, flying in far more quickly than it had spun out. And only at the end, as the frayed end of the rope emerged from the emptiness, did the meaning fully hit us. There was silence, all eyes on the end of the rope lying motionless on the ground, trying to take in everything it might mean.
We had town meetings after that. Everyone gathered together, but no one had any answers. Had about four before everyone stopped showing up—seemed they only sparked panic and hopelessness, staring into one another’s eyes and all reading the same, terrifying truth reflected back.
Electricity lasted a few days from the local facility, but it dried up pretty quick. After a few more, I realized I hadn’t seen the sun. Light still came in the morning and darkness at night, but it was as if we were trapped in a dome where only light seeped through. There were no stars at night, no light of the moon. Just a dim, diffused light during the day and a heavy, silent dark at night. The wind stopped blowing at some point, covering everything in an added layer of unnatural stillness. Sound seemed to be muffled, captured in whatever bubble we found ourselves in.
For a few days, everyone tried to go on like it was normal, as if it were just a long weekend and everyone had the day off. But the longer the situation lasted, the more impossible it became to pretend like this was some short-lived fluke. We busted the windows to the grocery store after four days—people had to eat, after all. It seemed like that was the moment we all made peace with the fact that this town was our prison. Most of us in town had assumed this would be the place we’d die as well, just not quite like this.
There is a rhythm to disaster as well. Wake up, go to the town hall to check for news, shop the remains of the grocery to ensure enough food for the next few days. Boil some water. Sit and watched the sunless sky fade to night. It’s not good, but somehow humanity always seems to find a pattern. And so I lived that pattern as the members in town dwindled. I assumed folks decided to risk it, take the chance on escape.
And I have to hope now that they all made it, finding some world on the other side of this nothing that was bustling and alive and active. Because soon, I’ll be taking that same impossible journey. You see, I woke up this morning, looked out the window, and saw that I was surrounded by nothing. The town was gone, my neighbor was gone, even the oak tree outside my window. In my gut, I felt something settled. Some part of me had known this would happen the whole time. And so I have packed the food I have into a pack, along with all the bottles of water I still had filled. I’ve got a flashlight, not that it seems to penetrate this nothing around me. Some matches, a change of clothes, and a hodgepodge of medical supplies scavenged from my bathroom cabinet. I don’t really stand a chance if there isn’t reality waiting on the other side. But I suppose I haven’t got a choice.
There are sounds in the nothing now. Something I’ve never heard before, but that I can hear as it surrounds me. Groans—almost like whale songs I heard playing that time I went to the aquarium. But deeper, sharper somehow. They don’t sound safe. I have my grandfather’s shot gun and what shells I could find, I suppose that should be comforting, but that feeling of helplessness has settled so deep inside me that nothing seems to uproot it.
I’ve wasted precious daylight writing this—truth is, I don’t want to start walking. But maybe someday this will lift and someone will know what has happened. Or perhaps you’re unlucky enough to find yourself trapped here. Maybe it will shine some light on what happened. I don’t have any answers.
Procrastinating is not getting me anywhere. I’m going to go now.
God be with us all.
So, 2017 has been a great, exciting, and busy time. However, all those wonderful and busy things mean I have not really been writing…at all. In February we started looking for a house, found one we liked in March, closed in April, started remodeling, and finally moved in June. Then I started studying nonstop for my licensing exam while we continued renovations on the house. A little over a week ago, I passed my exam (after around 150 hours of studying!). Hopefully, that’s one of the last big hoops on the road to becoming a full-fledged psychologist! Yesterday, we finished the final large scale interior project for the house–we’re waiting for cooler weather before tackling all the outside work.
So, it’s been good, but I’m glad to get back to writing a bit more regularly. I have been saving up quite a few ideas I want to get on paper, this one included. Plus I have some ideas saved up for Milgram that I definitely want to work on. If you’ve read this far, thanks! I hope you enjoyed this little story. Hopefully I’ll be more reliable going forward. I don’t have any plan to buy another house or take another test. Just general life stuff. Which can be crazy enough on it’s own.
As always, I’m open to any feedback you might have. I feel rusty, but definitely enjoyed getting words on paper and creating (then destroying–sorry about that…) this little town. Feel free to leave me a comment if you’d like.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
This is Part 4 of a longer story. You can find the other parts here:
Toby felt a new weight on his shoulders when he finally arrived home. The long walk through meandering city streets had done little to relive it. It was a strange mix of anger, guilt, and shame that left him feeling as if he had crawled the entire way home.
He slumped into the wooden chair, elbows resting on the wooden table while his hands barely supported his head. He studied the fake woodgrain, eyes following it until they lost focus on began dancing back through his memories. Now, beyond the images of a convulsing body suddenly growing still, he had the wide eyes and fear of the stranger from the bus.
Not only that, but—but did he dare think it?
Could he, perhaps, have crossed the path of the man he killed? Had they walked past one another on the street? Dined at the same restaurant? Shared a seat on the bus? It was, after all, in his district. And while Toby was not one to often leave his safe little city and visit others, he did occasionally let adventure get the best of him. And who’s to say the young man didn’t travel himself? Or, came the thought that most shook his thin defenses, perhaps his plaza was not so far away at all?
His sandwich churned in his gut and threatened to return. He took a few deep, steady breaths even though they shook his entire body. His hand hurt, and he released his head to flex it slowly. This was just what he needed, he thought morosely. It was probably arthritis setting in. Maybe, Toby thought with a dark glimmer of hope, it would get bad enough that he could take a medical retirement and live off the state. Maybe, if he was lucky, it would be so severe he would not have to return to his desk and that screen and that damned button.
The chair creaked as he shifted, the only sound in his silent apartment besides the steady tick of the clock. The light coming in through the windows told him more time had passed than he thought, and the clock confirmed it. Toby stood and walked the two paces to the kitchen, his legs dragging behind him. H felt as if he were propelled more by sheer routine than any sort of will or strength. But staring blankly at the available food, he felt nothing but emptiness gnawing at his stomach. How could he consider food when he was already full on despair, he wondered melodramatically to himself.
Instead, he dropped back into his seat and slowly began taking off his jacket. Something crinkled as he moved, and Toby slowly retrieved the flyer from his pocket. The same words stared up at him, convicting him. He had been an executioner. Toby—mild-mannered, friendly, polite, keeps-to-himself Toby—was an executioner. Those words collided in his head, triggering off a flood of thoughts and memories that doubled and tripled into a chaos he had no hope of sorting through.
There was no rhyme or reason that he could see to the memories that came up. There was his first day of work, walking in with a smartly pressed shirt and overflowing optimism. There were solitary lunches watching the children play in the park under the watchful gaze of their parents. There was a little girl crying in the plaza because she had been running where she shouldn’t.
A date that earned him nothing but a look of pity and disgust. His mother’s funeral, the speaker grabbing his arm and smiling weakly. In the midst of all of it, there was a person lying on the ground, a cheap watch in their hands. Then there were the children who mocked him as a child. Scared eyes at the bus stop.
It was, he realized in an instant, a parade of some of the worst moments in his life. A montage of loneliness, shame, and sorrow. The map to a broken man, a man who didn’t even have the ability to stand up and not kill someone.
Executioner, Toby thought. Just a fancy word for murder. That was never who he wanted to be. That was not who his mother, rest her soul, thought he was. But how wrong they had both been.
Judge. Jury. Executioner. Toby stared at the flyer. The truth hurt.
For the first time, Toby really read the flyer, skimming over the three words that were now a constant echo in his mind and reading the rest of the information.
“Join us: Monday, 7:00pm at the Brewhouse Coffee Bar. Together we have a voice.”
Toby toyed with the idea. It was only a few days away, but would they even want him there? He thought about walking in to some generic coffee house, seeing the young, impassioned men and women standing around. They would be rallying for their cause. Dressed in black and berets, they all fixed him with cold stares. Toby wondered if they would know simply by looking at him what he had done, or if that would only come out in time. Would they turn on him?
He smoother the paper on the table and stared at it some more, as if it held the answers. When it refused to share any more, he finally stood up, walked to the bedroom, and fell into his bed where he was able to spend a few solid hours staring at his ceiling and battling away the thoughts that clawed through his memories.
Once the sun was up again, Toby oozed from his bed and to the shower. Every joint ached and his heart thundered in his head, each pulse sending a fresh ache through his eyes. The water did little to wash away the feeling of stale sweat and dirt that seemed to cake his body. He had spent most of the night sweating and tossing in his bed, chasing momentary respite that was always shattered by the infernal beep of his monitor prompting him to provide redirection.
He turned the shower off early, watching the minutes transfer into his reserves. The sound of water dripping from his body to the tiled floor came with a steady beat, almost hypnotic. He reveled in the feeling of cold chasing up and down his back as the water dried on his skin.
He dressed stiffly, left his lunch at home, and made his way to the bus. It was not until he reached the stop that he realized he would have to climb on and ride alongside the people who had seen him in such a frenzy. Had hey seen his outbursts?
As he climbed on, he noticed they diverted their eyes. Walking along the rows, he had the distinct feeling that the silence was new, created simply by his presence. They must have been gossiping about the events before he boarded, only quieting to protect themselves from the madman riding alongside them. Perhaps some had even made the connection between his stop and the events of the day before. It was not like the monitoring building went to great lengths to conceal its purpose.
He sat and stared at the floor, trying to ignore the feeling of their eyes crawling over him with morbid curiosity.
What if they knew the murdered man?
Toby did not know what dark part of his mind spent its time asking such horrific questions, but once there he was powerless to get rid of it. Now it swirled about him. He had no idea where these people lived or work. Any one of them could have known of the plaza. Maybe the man’s family was on board. His mind suddenly spun with stories of family members, hopeful that their son or brother or nephew had finally turned his life around. Only to get the news that he had been callously, impersonally, unjustly struck down by some nameless machine.
And now, Toby thought, they were forced to ride the bus with him and act cordial.
Some reasonable part of his mind tried to intercede and remind him that it was unlikely anyone on the bus knew the man or the plaza. They were probably all just ready to get on with their days, caught up in their own lives and worries. Unfortunately that voice was drowned out by the flood of a thousand other scenarios, each somehow worse than the ones that preceded it.
When his stop finally arrived Toby climbed off the bus, body a mix of relief and absolute dread. He was away from their eyes, but here he was, again donning the executioner’s mask as he walked through the doors.
“Taking lunch,” he typed to Dana as he transferred his screen. There was a happy tone as she responded, but he ignored it to turn around in his chair.
His eyes continued to pound, so he let them close. The air cycled through his office, a steady hum of equipment doing its job. Just like he did his job and kept the city safe. No point in getting angry at the air conditioning if it was too warm or cold in the office—it simply did as it was told. Just ike he did as he was told.
Thoughts drifted loosely through his mind as sleep overtook him. It was deep and dreamless, only broken by a sharp tingling arcing down him back.
He woke with a start clutching at his neck where the redirection started from.
“And if you think you’re not on someone’s screen…”
He had never signed up for this, he thought as anger swelled. But still he spun back to his desk and opened his screen to the plaza.
“You there?” was Dana’s message. There were others, but he ignored them. Instead he responded with a curt, “Yes,” and then closed the message. Replies came back from her, but he closed each one and focused on the screen.
Sure, he had fallen asleep, but shouldn’t there be some other way of reminding him? A bell or a system message or something? He worked tirelessly for them, but he made a tiny mistake and got no consideration. Someone somewhere watched him day in and day out as he did everything he could to be the best employee he could be, but they had no mercy.
Like, he reasoned, he had no mercy. Then again, he had no choice.
Then again, they had no choice.
His anger continued to grow, no longer focused on the nameless person in an office like his own. Instead, his ire grew for the smiling man in the suit. For the people who loaded a gun but made someone else pull the trigger.
It was their fault he felt so guilty. He was not an executioner; he never wanted to be. But they turned him into one, and then they weren’t even there to take responsibility for what they had done. Toby shouldered that burden for them, only to be punished by them.
The anger was a welcome relief from guilt, and Toby threw himself into it. It propelled him through the day until the closing alarm signaled and his screen transferred to whoever had the next shift. Whoever the next fall guy was.
Leaving the office, Toby skipped the bus stop and began walking the opposite direction of home. He needed answers, and he had an idea where they might be found.
Toby marched through the streets with single-minded ferocity. Something began to whisper that if he stopped, all the energy would drain from him in a moment, leaving behind the void that guilt so easily filled. And so he refused to slow down or pause. If he thought about it too long, he knew he would also fail and crumble back into the shell he had been for the past few days. There was a desperation in his action. That same cruel part of his mind assured him that, should he fail this time, he’d never find the courage again to make this journey. It was his one and only shot, or else he would be forced to succumb to a lifetime of despair.
Toby finally stopped, taking a brief moment to confirm he was where he thought. Brewhouse Coffee Bar, said the sign. With a deep breath that threatened to shatter his resolve, he gripped the handle and tugged.
I struggled with this part (hence the delay), but finally just had to get it out there. I feel like it manages to meander and move too quickly all at the same time. Not much happens here, but I do plan on some fireworks in the next part. I’m still not 100% on the final direction ( I have a handful of ideas, but not sure which I want to use versus drop), but I at least know the next few steps.
This is my first time in a long time writing something this long, so I’m trying to get into the flow with it. I think this is one section that will require heavy editing later, but it serves it’s purpose for now by creating the bridge I need between this introductory part and the rising tension. If you have any thoughts or insight on how to improve this section, please let me know in the comments. Hopefully I’ll have more out soon. I’m also working on another piece that is shorter, so hopefully I can figure that one out and get it up here before too long!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Toby stepped on the bus at the end of the day, a feeling of normalcy beginning to uncertainly percolate through his body. As he took his usual seat, he felt thoughts beginning to tingle at the back of his mind. Could he really be so cold and callous that a day after murdering someone he was back to normal? Toby tried his best to silence that thought, shove it back into the dark recesses where he had locked away images of a blank screen hiding a cooling body.
As if ignoring it would make it go away, something whispered, but he turned his attention to the safety warnings on the inside of the bus.
“PLEASE REMAIN SEATED WHILE THE VEHICLE IS IN MOTION.”
At the next stop, a new person got on board. Toby watched him climb aboard and settle in to the young woman’s usual seat, glad for some new distraction. After the fourth reading, the safety information became far less engaging, and he had already noticed his thoughts wandering towards that locked door in the back of his mind. He was a young man, dressed in casual, athletic clothing. Small beads of sweat stood out on his dark forehead, which made Toby think it was maybe someone returning from the gym. Or something like that. The weather certainly wasn’t warm enough for anything more. The man—boy?—sat on the edge of the seat, legs shaking up and down as the doors swung closed and the bus began to move. His eyes were distant, pondering something far more significant than the passengers on the bus.
As the vehicle accelerated from the curb and back onto its path, the man jumped up. He reached into his backpack, pulling out a handful of flyers.
“Excuse me,” began the boy—he certainly looked more like a scared child now, standing in the idle of the bus. His voice even cracked as he began. He took a deep breath, cleared his throat, and began again. “Excuse me, everyone. I have something I must speak to you about today.”
The bus home was always more crowded than the bus to work, and Toby watched the passengers around him roll their eyes and reach for books, music players, and other distractions. The boy scanned the audience, trying to find some eye contact to reassure him.
He found Toby’s eyes.
“I won’t take much of your time, but there are things going on that the good people of this city need to know.” He held Toby’s eyes for a beat or two longer, then began looking around trying to draw in more listeners. Toby new he had a minute or two before redirection would be applied for such behavior, and he could see the sweat sliding down his forehead now. The boy seemed to know he was on a clock.
“Did you know that just this week, a man was murdered in our wonderful district by the state.” He seemed to be reaching his stride now, growing more and more assured as he continued speaking. “Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you heard me. A man was murdered in cold blood by our government. His crime, you ask?” He paused, as if waiting for some sort of participation from his mostly annoyed audience.
Toby shifted uncomfortably in his seat. It certainly couldn’t be, right?
“His crime was stealing a hundred dollar watch.”
The bus suddenly became impossibly cramped and hot. Toby saw, clear as the man in front of him, the body lying on the ground, a silver watch lying forgotten on the ground. Officers placed the watch in a bag later, sealing it away as evidence. He had watched it all go on right before his eyes. And this was in his district? His plaza had been close all this time, which somehow made it worse.
“Of course, such activity is illegal, but is a man’s life,” he paused eyes wandering over his captive audience. A few people were looking at him now, faces a mix of curiosity and amusement, “is a man’s life worth a mere $100?”
Toby’s gut was in a knot, and he feared he might be sick. Surely, his mind told him, the boy standing on the bus would notice his pale features, the sweat dripping in slimy trails down his face, the look of pain and horror on his face. He might even call him out. Did the man know he worked for the government?
Did he know he was a murderer?
Any sense of normalcy that had been building was shattered, those tiny shards turning into daggers that drove through him body and soul. In fact, the feeling was even worse, coupled with a new wave of guilt. Toby had dared to think he could simply move on from that moment. Was there anything more reprehensible than that?
He came back to the message, catching the man mid-sentence. “…act and voice our concerns. We must make it clear that the surveillance, the unsupervised murder of citizens, and the culture of fear we live under daily is not to be tolerated. A man’s life is worth far more than a $100 watch. He deserved a fair chance. And yes, he deserved punishment. But a fair punishment.”
The man grimaced, and Toby checked his watch. Time was up. Based on the brevity and the rather muted response, it was a low-level redirection. But Toby knew that such mercy would not last long, especially not with as many buses ran in the city day in and day out.
“They don’t want me to tell you this,” the man said through gritted teeth. After a moment, he took a deep breath and opened his eyes. “I’ve just been redirected for telling you the truth. There was no trial for me, no fair allotment of punishment. You have witnessed it, ladies and gentlemen. And if you are tired of witnessing it, join with us. Together we can have a voice.”
He began walking down the rows, handing out a flier of some sort. Toby took one, keeping his eyes down. The man’s eyes scraped over him, and Toby was sure he would recognize what was going on. But instead, Toby watched the man’s sneakered feet drift down the rows and towards those seated in the back. Toby released an anxious breath he had not realized he had held for so long.
“JUDGE, JURY, AND EXECUTIONER,” said the familiar flier. Beneath it, he saw a date and time, a location. “Join us,” it urged. “Together we can have a voice.”
Toby crumpled the flier and shoved it into the pocket of his jacket, trying to erase the images from his mind. Trying, once again, to lock those dark thoughts away. But they continued.
At the next stop, he bolted off the bus. Being on the sidewalk, he finally felt as if he could breathe again, and he took in a few deep breaths at the bus stop as people flowed on and off the bus around him. Toby closed his eyes, trying not to see that face twisted into a final mask of pain. It didn’t seem to help.
“Sir, seems like you really heard me in there,” said a voice behind him. Toby turned and saw the man from the bus, still holding his fliers. He smiled softly, stepping away from the crowd and closer to Toby’s sanctuary by the stop. “It can really shake you up, when you really think about it. Most people try to avoid it.”
Toby nodded quickly, breaking eye contact and considering running down the street. No he told himself, some part of his brain focused on survival still. Running would only confirm his guilt.
The man took a couple more uncertain steps towards him, studying Toby closely and trying to get a read on the sweaty, distracted, and distressed man in front of him. “I know it’s a lot to take in. It’s hard to believe any of your fellow citizens could be so…” the man searched for the word, then shrugged, “so awful. To just kill someone for something like a watch.” He gave a short, derisive snort.
Maybe, Toby thought, the man shouldn’t have been stealing in the first place. Maybe, it continued, everyone should just follow the rules. Maybe people should be able to ride the bus unnharassed by such terrible news. All those thoughts sprang to mind, fueling a fire of anger and hatred that he had not been aware of. Or, perhaps he had, but it had only been directed at himself. Now there was a new potential target.
“If you want to get involved—“ started the man.
“I’m already involved enough!” shouted Toby. He watched the young man’s eyes grow wide, as he took a step back and put his hands up.
The man was a boy again, scared of the angry stranger on the street. The fear in his eyes was enough to extinguish the anger. Maybe, he thought, he was just as monstrous as they said.
“Yeah, no problem, man. Sorry to have bothered you.” The boy backed away, hands still up and waving the fliers limply in the air. He took a few steps, then turned and walked away briskly. Running would get him another redirection, and Toby imagined his neck already ached. Still, Toby felt for him. He understood, because at that moment, Toby certainly wished he could run away from himself.
Part Four Now Up!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Don’t be confused, read Part 1 here!
Toby was still shaking, or at least he thought he was. It seemed as if he had done nothing but tremble since he had pressed that button eighteen hours ago. Well, tremble and vomit. He reported in as sick for the day, receiving a friendly note after his status had been confirmed. While the readout assured him there was no detectable pathogen, it did note evidence of recent emesis, abnormal sweating, and mental confusion. His sick time was dutifully logged and detracted from his bank.
Of course, it was not like he could stay away forever. Toby was acutely aware that he had no marketable skills, no connections in industry, and no money to better himself in any way. He would have to return to work the next day or risk termination, which was certainly only a breath away from homelessness and forced labor. He looked at his hands, waving softly in the air with fear of what they had done, and knew he would never survive forced labor.
He carried himself to the shower, pausing at the selection panel before entering the small, glass prism. The options were listed in pale blue font on a white background, tiny images of soap bubbles floating across the letters.
“Daily Shower……..Renews in 15 Hours
Relaxation…………..4 Credits Remaining
He stared at the options. It felt like an emergency, but he knew he would be charged if there was no evidence that he had been involved in some unexpected mess. And he certainly could not afford to lose his daily credits for the next week paying it back. Also, the one time he had been required to use that option, it sprayed him quiet violently with a stream of lukewarm water while emergency lights blared. Certainly not what his nerves needed. He begrudgingly selected Relaxation, acutely aware he was nearing his allotment there. It took too long to rebuild, but, if ever a day called for it, it was then.
The lights in the bathroom dimmed as soft flute music began to play. The water began as a slow stream, steadily picking up speed until it was drumming firmly along his shoulders. It smelled faintly of lavender.
Toby tried to relax. He closed his eyes, taking slow and steady breaths in time with the music. He tried to focus his mind on pleasant things. But behind his lids, the same image played over and over. The screen changed from a generic human going about their day—albeit stealing—to an image highlighted with urgency to nothing. It was the nothing that continued to haunt him behind his eyes. It was the nothing that was replaced by the real life images of a man in his thirties suddenly jerking and freezing, body held in stasis as his eyes rolled back in his head. Eventually, as the redirection ended, he collapsed to the ground.
His chest wasn’t rising and falling. Toby hadn’t needed to keep watching for his report, but he did. He watched the emergency team arrive, provide cursory attempts at resuscitation, and then close the body up in a hazard bag. Toby kept watching that spot the rest of his shift, even as it emptied and the sun rose on the plaza. He was fortunate the night was quiet afterwards; he was also certain he would not have been able to stomach another redirection, no matter how minor.
The nothingness was a lie, he realized. Because behind that nothingness was an empty husk of a body.
He had killed someone.
The words slammed into him again, caged with him inside the shower. The smell of lavender was nauseating, the feeling of the water unbearable, the music a grating screech. He couldn’t breathe—he was drowning in the steam.
Toby clawed his way out of the shower, flinging open the door and stepping out into the cool air of the bathroom. It did little to relieve the noose around his throat. The screen beeped at him, and for a moment he knew it was the chime on his work display screen. He had never escaped the office.
Whirling around, eyes wide as a cornered animal, he stared at the shower menu.
“Terminate Relaxation period? Relaxation Credits cannot be refunded.”
He swiped at the screen, selecting the yes option before stumbling out of the room. He was tired of small, enclosed rooms.
Toby didn’t know what he wanted or needed right then. Everything that had been fine was wrong now. He pushed into his bedroom, the sheets rumpled in the way that comes from a sleepless night. It was all cast in an artistic, almost sympathetic light, shadows deep with afternoon sun. Dust floated in the air, tiny glints and sparkles that seemed to be too peaceful, too idealized to exist in a world where he was an executioner. Toby felt his stomach turn again at the thought, but he knew he had nothing left to expel.
He sat on the edge of his bed, facing the window. There was a tree outside, limbs swaying gently in what must have been a pleasant breeze. For a moment, Toby was hypnotized by the steady, gentle movement of the leaves. It did what the shower could not and gave him a moment of peace, the briefest gift of separation. He was sitting in his room, watching the tree, and nothing was wrong.
Unfortunately, all relief was temporary. His thoughts were like a murmurration of starlings, briefly settling before being tossed into chaos once again. They had managed to rest briefly on the boughs of the tree outside his window, but the slightest breeze and they were off again, caught up in recollection and speculation.
How many people had been redirected to death?
What about the people he redirected. Sure, their numbers were small. But they grew, and he had seen it. What if he unknowingly pushed them over the edge?
What if he had thrown out more death warrants into the void for things as simple as littering or running?
His right hand had begun to tingle, almost as if it had been asleep. He stretched his fingers wide, massaging it with his left, but there was no relief from the gentle pinpricks. Toby shook his hand sharply, hoping to return blood flow. Only there was no numbness, no coldness. It simply tingled, and no amount of attention seemed to relieve it.
Toby fell back onto his bed, eyes closed and hands limp at his sides. Traitorous hands.
The light shifted behind his eyelids as the branches swayed, letting in more and less light. His eyes burned, either because he had spent the wee morning hours crying, or because he had not slept in nearly 36 hours. His mind spun, eventually managing to spin itself into more and more fantastic, bizarre forms.
Unwillingly, Toby fell asleep, where there was finally, truly, nothing.
The sound of his alarm woke him, and he groaned. He had not moved the entire night, but slept with his feet on the floor and back stretched across the bed. Now his joints ached. Standing and stretching relieved some of the tension, but there was a deeper ache that seemed unreachable. And his hand still felt wrong, but the feeling was at least milder now.
There was a day’s worth of stubble on his face, and his mouth tasted of sleep and vomit. Toby was glad there was no mirror in his bedroom, because he was certain he did not want to see how he looked Unfortunately, there was no avoiding it in the bathroom, and he had to meet his sunken-eyed gaze.
He selected his daily shower and climbed in, doing what he could to wash away the stink of sweat and despair that coated his body like a film. Normally he ended his shower early, banking the additional minutes for later use. But today he let the timer run out, giving the water at least a chance to wash away the memories of what had happened. It was more successful than the day before, but he was still stained by the thoughts. There was still a man carved out of nothingness behind his eyelids.
Toby shaved, brushed his teeth, and combed his hair. He inspected his uniform in the mirror, feeling more repulsed by it than he ever had. He was never a morning person, and leaving for work was often difficult. But it was now different. He was not just longing to return to bed. He was, instead, longing to vanish out of existence. Perhaps he could just be gone in a blink, an image on a screen one minute and gone the next.
He shook his head sharply to dispel the thoughts, his eyes staring back at him hurt and accusing in the mirror. With a deep breath, he reminded himself that he had a job to do. He was needed at his office, and he would complete his daily tasks. The thought of his small room, his screen, and his plaza was enough to throw him off balance again. It felt as if the bathroom had closed in around him, crushing his lungs so he could not gather one good breath. An image flashed through his mind, his head swollen like a balloon, eyes bulging, ready to burst. All the pressure was crushing in on him. Then, the world righted itself, snapping back into place like a rubber band releasing.
Toby left his apartment, uncharacteristically skipping breakfast. The thought of food conjured the taste of bile and sand in his mouth. He did grab his lunch, hoping that perhaps he would arrive to work and discover it had all been a huge misunderstanding. That nothing had ever happened. That it was a prank, a joke. Perhaps a system test? He tried his best to conjure alternatives along the walk to the bus stop.
There were five other people on the bus. There always were. And by the time he reached his stop, three of those people would have left and six more would have joined. Each person had their seat, though no one had ever acknowledged their communal seating chart. It was just how things went. Toby boarded the bus and took his seat, sitting beside the window where he could watch the city slide past. Only today he did not feel like looking at anything. He felt alone and vulnerable, as if someone had flayed off his skin and left every nerve exposed. Looking at the city was too much.
He wanted to reach out, to talk to the passengers, but no one did that. It wasn’t forbidden, certainly, but it was…deviant. It was invasive and rude. And so Toby bit his tongue, resolving instead to watch his fellow passengers rather than reaching out to them. He wondered how the older woman three seats ahead would respond if he told her he killed someone.
In his head, she smiled and patted his shoulder, genuine kindness and sympathy in her eyes. The teenager in the corner probably wouldn’t understand, would move away. Toby imagined he would see fear in the girl’s eyes. The gentleman with his paper would probably start by blustering about the cops, but would offer help later, once the details were out there. Toby imagined that man would have a long diatribe about the state of the government and law and order. He seemed like the type.
There was the young woman with her music. He was unsure how she would respond, as her face was always a stoic mask. He saw her reading a self-help book once, so he pretended she would be the one to offer actual help. She’d provide firm reassurances, maybe offer to buy him coffee. Toby’s mind wandered as he thought about the two of them sharing coffee, talking about what life had been like before he was a murderer.
Lost in his thoughts, Toby did not notice when she or the others left the bus. He also did not notice the arrival of his other companions, instead focused on building a life with the woman across the bus. It wasn’t until it came to a sudden stop in front of his building that his mind returned to the present, retreating from the light of his imagined future and into the darkness of his present.
His legs were leaden as he walked off the bus and through the wide doors of his office. He walked down the long hallway flanked on either side with doors. He never saw other monitors coming or going, though he sometimes heard music or talking from behind the doors.
How many of them were killers, too? Did they understand?
Toby paused in front of one door, hand half raised but frozen. He read and reread the notice on the door. “Do not disturb. Level one offense.”
The back of his neck, where his monitoring chip was located, prickled with each repetition.
“If you think you’re not on someone’s screen right now, Mr. Georges, you are quite wrong.” The words stomped over his thoughts, and he turned away from the door. He couldn’t risk it.
His chair was as he left it, his screen idling and awaiting his return. Upon logging in, he saw his plaza displayed. There was a decent crowd this early in the morning, though he noticed everyone seemed to eddy around one point on the map. That’s where the man had vanished, and Toby knew people were talking about it. Who wouldn’t?
But the rumors at least had the benefit of making it a very quiet day. There were no boisterous, running youth. No loitering, no littering. No theft. The plaza was quiet, almost somber.
Lunch time approached, and the routine of work had returned some of his hunger. He keyed in his lunch code and waited as his screen transferred. Dana’s name popped on the screen.
“Got you covered!” read her text. Toby felt a weight shift inside of him. There was another human out there who knew him. A moment later, another line appeared. “Glad you’re back!”
He was slightly surprised. “How did you know I was sick?” he typed quickly.
“I didn’t. Sorry you were sick. I thought you were out on vacation.”
She didn’t answer his question, and Toby felt a strange paranoia bubble in his chest. Could Dana be the one watching him?
Then another message. “Oh, and you never asked me to watch for lunch yesterday. I knew you must be out!”
As quickly as it appeared, the paranoia vanished. He was leaping at shadows. “Oh, right. Thanks.”
He marched back through the long, empty hallways. There were sounds coming from behind other doors, but no one else was walking to the bench outside for lunch. He sat alone, watching happy people go about their lives while he munched on one corner of his sandwich. With five minutes to spare, he dutifully wrapped up the untouched two-thirds and disposed of it properly before returning to his desk.
It was 2:30 before he had his first alert. His heart began to pound at the sound of the chime, hands sweating. On the screen, he watched an adult stand on the corner and hand out flyers. Such activity was banned within the shopping plaza, which meant redirection was needed. A level one only, but his chest tightened as he waited to hear the follow-up sound that meant the limit was reached. Only when the silence continued to stretch in the room did he dare look down at the input panel.
The level was still set at 10, a solemn reminder of his personal tragedy. Everything else in the world seemed to continue moving and spinning, but here, his dial was still set at ten. He swatted at the dial, swiftly returning it to one, but withdrawing his hand sharply as if it would burn him. The one looked much friendlier, but maintained a sinister quality that had not existed before.
It was taking too long, and the system beeped at him again.
“Failure to provide redirection WILL be reported and may result in termination,” offered a box on the screen. Toby took a deep breath. It was just a level one, he reminded himself. But his hand still bristled as he moved it towards the button, ached as he forced it down to press the small, grey circle. The image on the screen flashed with the redirection, then was gone. The figure on the screen, glanced toward the camera, a move Toby knew meant he or she was probably cursing at him, then moved on, papers in hand.
His report was almost cathartic. He looked at the middle-aged woman on the screen as she yelled and shoved flyers at passing shoppers. Then, there was the redirection, where a brief flash of annoyed pain scattered over her face. She glared up at the camera with irritation, her mouth moving in ways Toby did not try to make sense of.
Then, she held up one of the flyers to the camera. “JUDGE, JURY, AND EXECUTIONER?” it read. Below the words were the adult and child images he watched day in and day out. She made a gesture before she left, and Toby did not have to wonder what that might mean.
Part 3 continues here!
I told you it would be back, and here it is! I will be editing as I go, so things may change as it goes. That’s why these are drafts. I’m not 100% sure how long this will be or where precisely it will end up (but I do have some ideas), but I hope you’ll join me for the journey! As always, please leave your thoughts, recommendations, and critiques in the comments!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Louisa scanned the search results, skipping over the hacks and scam artists she had already exhausted. She had discovered that there was a booming market for false psychics and paranormal investigators, each able to only provide momentarily relief to her problems. With problems like hers, she needed real help, but no one had been able to provide that.
She hovered over one of the remaining blue links, awash amongst a sea of purple. Campbell and Corey Supernatural Exploration Group, it said, and she begrudgingly clicked it. Hope had been drained from her, but she continued to move through the motions because she had no choice. The website was as lackluster as she expected. Rambling blog posts, action shots of the two founders—Campbell and Corey, she presumed—skulking through dark hallways. A handful of grainy videos and muffled sound files, then a contact form.
“Is your house or business haunted? Need some relief? The SEG is the answer you’ve been looking for!” She admired their exuberance, but she had read it all before. Still, she began to enter the information for what had to be the twentieth time since it all began. And still no solution.
There was a chill along her back, the feeling of ice slicing through her skin and burrowing into her body. “What are you doing, mommy?” asked the voice that resonated inside her own chest cavity. That was a feeling she never got used to, the way the sound of another’s voice traveled through her tissues and bones and through her ears.
“Just finding some friends to play with you,” she said with a forced smile and a tremor in her voice. While she couldn’t see her daughter in the room, she could feel the waves of suspicion and anger filling the four walls.
“Are they nice people, mommy? I didn’t like the last friends you found,” pouted the voice.
“I—I think so, honey. Very nice. Hopefully you can play lots of fun games with them.”
The anger dissipated, replaced with a slight warmth and excitement.
“When will they be here? Do you think they’ll want to play with my dollies?”
“I just invited them, so we’ll see.”
Louisa shivered and clicked the submit button, reading the cheery popup that assured her “Someone from the team will contact you within 3-5 business days.”
She only hoped it would not be too late.
“I appreciate you meeting me here,” she said, taking a long sip of her coffee. The sounds of the coffee shop swelled around them, full of warmth, laughter, and humanity. It was so good to be out of the cold, angry house. After a week of waiting, Jenny’s impatience left the house feeling like a predator waiting to pounce. Not to mention the nightmares. It was hard to relax, but Louisa felt some of the tension begin to melt, washed away by the bitter coffee.
“Hey, no problem. We’re here to help.” Campbell, as he had introduced himself, smiled widely. He was sweating slightly in the stuffy room, but she had thus far not seen a single chink in his optimistic presentation.
“No offense, but I’ve talked to a lot of people. How are you going to help?”
His smile bloomed, as if he had been waiting for that very question. “None taken! I think we offer something very different from our competitors. And there are a lot of them, as you’ve seen. You see, Corey, my partner, he’s our secret weapon. That’s why he doesn’t want to meet you until we do the actual walkthrough and investigation.”
“Secret weapon?” She attempted to sound interested, but her feigned support was flimsy.
“He’s a psychic, so he can sense things others cannot. Things our competitors are blind to.”
“Ah,” she said, turning her eyes down to her coffee. This meeting had been just as pitiful as she had expected.
“Which is why I do the initial interview and gather background. We don’t want him contaminated. But, rest assured, I’ll do all the research needed to discover if there is some supernatural explanation for what’s been going on.”
She smiled tightly, eyes darting up quickly. Strike one, they clearly had not read any of the information she sent them in the contact form. “I am fairly certain I know the source of the haunting,”
His smile faltered briefly, but was replaced so quickly she almost missed it. “Of course,” he said, laughing and striking his forehead lightly. “You mentioned that in your message. Sorry, long day. So, why don’t you tell me a little more about what happened? You’ll save me some time in the library!”
“Almost two years ago, my daughter fell down the stairs in our house while playing with a neighborhood friend. She was dead when I found her. Her friend had run home and hidden.”
Campbell nodded slowly, eyes slightly unfocused as he digested the short phrases. The silence extended, and Louisa felt a bubble of irritation. It was a fairly straightforward story, yet he seemed uncertain.
“And so,” he began after chewing the information, “you believe your daughter is haunting you?”
“I think that makes the most sense.”
He took that information in, adding it to the store as if it was some additional revelation. Louisa was at least relieved that his over-the-top smile had faded. “And what sort of things began after—“ he paused and looked at her expectantly.
“After Jenny passed?”
She took a deep sigh, followed by a large gulp from the coffee. Maybe, she mused, she should just type up a manuscript explaining the events, so she could simply pass it out to each team in turn. Then they would each be free to ignore it as they always did. “Well, it began with hearing her talking to me while I was alone in the house. Grief, they told me, and not abnormal. Then I noticed cold spots in the house, which everyone says is just the reality of living alone in a drafty house. Sometimes I feel her touching me, holding my hand. If I don’t respond, she’ll scratch me.” Louisa held up her hand, showing a collection of small, pink scrapes running along the back. “People stopped offering explanations then.”
Campbell just continued nodding each step along the way, smiling as if he knew what she was going to say before she even said it.
“Now she sometimes throws things. She’s tried to push me down the stairs. And when I sleep, she whispers nightmares. I can’t sleep without seeing her lying bloody on the floor, then it’s me lying there. Sometimes I dream that I’m lying there, unable to move or breathe as they carry me out and lay me into a cremator.”
“Did you have her cremated?” he interjected.
Louisa nodded quickly. “But I got rid of the ashes—sprinkled them at her favorite park—when all this started happening.”
“And how many times have you seen her?”
She narrowed her eyes and fixed him with a hardened gaze. “I never said I saw her. And I hope I never do.”
That finally broke the smile for good. “Of, right, of course. It’s just that normally, you know—“
“No, I wouldn’t know. I don’t think there’s anything normal about any of this.”
“Right.” He studied his coffee; she studied the top of his head.
“And are you alone in the house?” he asked after another painful pause.
“I am. Have been for a while now.”
“And Jenny’s father, is he—“
“He left about a month after her funeral. Died a couple of weeks later of a heart attack, holding onto one of Jenny’s dolls and lying in a roach-infested motel.”
“My condolences, ma’am. I know you’ve been through a lot.” His voice softened, as did his eyes, and Louisa felt herself soften just a bit. She had met so many people who offered the traditional sympathy, but he at least seemed genuine. Unintentionally, this opened a box of memories she had hoped were sealed shut. The image of him leaving the house, suitcase in his hand and tears in his eyes as he pled with her to leave with him. Her stubborn refusal—Jenny was her daughter, she had told him, and she would not abandon her in this life or the next. How much she regretted her decision now, months later, as the real cost of her dedication became clear.
“Did he experience any of these things?” he asked, his tone gentle.
She nodded, feeling those little pinpricks around her eyes that she was all too familiar with. “That’s why he left.”
“I see. And did things change after your husband’s death? Or have they changed at other times, perhaps?”
Her coffee had cooled from hot to lukewarm, but she sipped at it anyways. “Things got better a few days after he left, but then were back to the same. And it comes and goes. Sometimes it’s like she’s gone. But she always comes back.”
“And how is it now?”
Louisa laughed bitterly. “Oh, she’s definitely there now. If your team comes over, there’ll be no missing her.”
“Right, which brings us to the final point. Scheduling and payment.”
It took a great deal of self-control for her to resist rolling her eyes. Of all the hacks she had met, Campbell had been one of the better ones at playing at sympathy. However, his mask even fell when money entered the discussion.
“Of course,” she said with a taut smile. His smile was back, glowing at her as if he could not read the irritation in her eyes.
“So, how about next Tuesday? We’ll come by around seven to get set up, spend around 3 hours investigating the house, and be out of your hair before midnight?”
They always arrived at night, something Louisa could not make sense of. Jenny was equally active day and night, so the need to traipse through her house in the dark seemed more for theatrics than anything useful. Still, she had heard the nonsense about thinning walls between the planes enough times to know better than to push the issue. “Sounds great,” she agreed. “And the cost?”
“Well, we know a lot of people seek to take advantage of people in your situation.”
The irony of his words struck her, forcing an authentic smile to her face. Yes, all those terrible others.
“So all we ask upfront is the cost of travel and basic supplies. Things like tapes, memory cards, duct tape, and other minor things that we will need to set up and investigate.” He pulled a sheet from the portfolio at his side, passing it over to her. “Our office estimated costs for you at about $75.”
“And what about the other costs? The not-so-upfront ones?”
“Well, we do offer additional services following the results of the investigation. Corey, since he’s psychic and all, can help provide a cleansing or speak with the spirits. If you are interested in any of that, then we can talk price later.”
“Right. Well, I guess my peace of mind is worth $75,” she said, pulling out her wallet. She tried not to think about how many times she had said those words, the only thing changing being the dollar amount. Campbell seemed surprised when she withdrew a selection of bills, counting out $75 and passing it over the table. “I’ll see you next Tuesday at 7.” With that, she rose and threw out the last of the coffee, walking out the door and back to her waiting home. To her loyal daughter.
The cold, bristly feeling struck her as soon as she entered the front door. She felt Jenny twine about her insides, pulling so close that the two were virtually one spirit sharing a body.
“Did you find me new friends?”
Louisa had to grit her teeth to respond, the cold become an aching pain arcing through her bones. “Yes, Jenny. They’ll be here on Tuesday.”
The spirit moved on, leaving an odd emptiness deep inside Louisa. But the house felt warmer again, bustling with an excitement that she knew would fade within hours. Jenny was never entertained for long.
Less than a week, and then relief, she reminded herself. She just had to keep going.
There was no one at the door at seven, and Jenny was anxious. Louisa noticed the spirit darting from one end of the house to another, brushing through her with greater speed and intensity each time. “Where are they?” she asked during one pass.
Louisa shuddered. “They’ll be here. Be patient.”
“I don’t want to be patient,” she said as she whisked to the back door as if the strangers were going to come climbing over their fence.
“Should I play hide and seek again?” The questions continued to bubble up from her, each carrying a level of malice that tied knots in Louisa’s stomach.
“Yes, I think that will be very good. You always were so good at hiding.”
“They didn’t find me last time,” she said. “Only heard me that once.”
Louisa nodded, her knuckles turning white where they gripped the edge of the counter. Every time she thought she was free to take a step, that cold fire of Jenny’s presence rooted her to the spot. She remembered the garbled recording, the only evidence the last team had returned. They insisted it said “I love you, mommy.” Louisa knew it, in fact, was another of Jenny’s favorite phrases. “I’ll kill you all.” So much for their high end equipment and fancy recordings.
The knock came at seven fifteen, and Louisa opened the door to see Campbell and another man, who she assumed was Corey. They were carrying a few bags loaded with equipment, things she had seen before. They had cameras that recorded heat and IR, voice recorders, talking boxes, lots of coils of wire, EMF detectors, and other small electronics she had already forgotten the name of. Campbell shook her head and began to explain, but she waved him away.
“I’ve done my homework on this stuff. Spare me.”
He chuckled and continued laying out equipment as Corey, still silent, hustled around the house setting up cameras in what seemed to be every corner. “Funny you mention homework, because I did some of my own.”
Campbell pulled out a newspaper article from one of the bags, passing it over to her. “I know you were brief about what happened, but I found this story about it and I was wondering if there as anything else that might be helpful for us to know?”
Louisa knew the article on sight, but was pleasantly shocked. Campbell had been one of the few to do any sort of research, even the minimum required to find this. Her eyes skimmed the familiar words, the notes about conflicting reports. According to the article, Jenny’s neighbor friend had a different story. He said Jenny chased him around the house with a knife. He said Jenny was alive when he finally escaped, crying his way home to his parents. He said Louisa was there, looking angry, and that she looked so very sad when he and his mother returned. He said Jenny died when she fell down the stairs, but he had nothing to do with it.
With a curt nod, Louisa passed the paper back. “That was a bit of a mess. But they never found any evidence of what he said. Kids will say crazy things. Especially if they accidentally pushed their friend down the stairs.”
“Right,” said Campbell with his familiar, pleasant grin. “That sort of thing must be tough on a kid.”
“It’s tough on all of us,” she responded, feeling almost as if she were reading off the grieving, but understanding parent’s script. “Will you want me to stay around while you’re investigating?” The answers has been mixed from the different people and groups. Psychics usually wanted her around, presumably so she would be amazed at their feats of insight. Paranormal investigators usually ushered her out, citing a need to prevent contamination of the area. With this combined team, she wasn’t sure what to expect.
“You’re welcome to join, but there probably won’t be much to see. Most of our information comes up in the review. Corey may have some things to add, but mostly he just asks questions and records. But,” he paused, rummaging through the bag, “we always bring an extra camera if you’d like to record with us!”
Louisa took the camera. This was new. She turned it on and spun it around here kitchen, watching the world through the viewfinder. For an instant, she caught sight of Jenny ducking around a corner with a giggle. Louisa smiled and hit the delete button, pushing that little piece of evidence into oblivion.
“Alright,” said a new voice. Corey was standing in the doorway. “Let’s get started.”
He marched away, Campbell grabbing a few implements off the table and hustling after him. As he left the kitchen, he paused to turn off the lights, plunging the house into complete darkness. Theatrics.
Corey made his way to the staircase, pausing for a moment at the bottom. “So here is where you found her when you arrived back home?”
“Yes,” said Louisa stoically, stifling the guilt from a little white lie.
Campbell nudged her. “I didn’t even tell him what happened!” he whispered, his eyes wide. Unfortunately, he was not the best actor she had seen, but she feigned amazement.
Corey looked pleased. “Yes, I felt something was off here. So much sadness, pain.” He pulled out a voice recorder, holding it out and spinning slowly in a large circle. “Are you still here? Would you like to talk to us?” The only sound in the house was the hissing of air vents, and occasional groan of an engine passing by on the street outside. “How can we help you?” he asked, staring up at the dark ceiling.
Campbell pulled out a small monitor, checking the temperature and EMF. “Everything’s normal here,” he said after a moment.
Corey smiled. “She must be a little shy. Let’s head up to her room, see if we can’t help her feel more comfortable.” With that, he began climbing the stairs toward the small second floor room. Louisa might have been impressed if he had not spent the evening roaming her house to set up cameras. It was easy to tell which one had once belonged to a seven-year-old girl.
The door opened onto a room painted pale pink, but appearing grey in the dim light. There were shelves lining the room, a treasure trove of various dolls sitting at attention. There had once been so many of them, but they had since dwindled. Louisa looked around, noticing one was missing. She soon spotted it seated at the small tea table behind the bed. Jenny had prepared for her guests, it seemed.
Corey bee-lined for the table, sinking down to his knees to get on the same level. “I feel a lot of happiness here, but some sadness. Like she’s joyful that she can still be here, but sad she can no longer play with her toys or friends.” He paused dramatically, face sculpted into a sorrowful mask. Slowly, he pulled out the recorder from his pocket. “Do you mind if I join?” he asked the darkness, holding out the recorder. His voice was too loud in the enclosed room, feeling almost as if he were yelling at the ceiling. Louisa felt a headache beginning to build in the back of her head, like cold fingers were digging through her brain. But no one else seemed to notice the chill, and she was not about to bring their attention to it.
After a long pause, Corey reached out and lifted one of the plastic tea cups. Eyes roving around the room, he took one long, pretend sip from the cup. “Delicious!” he said with a smack of his lips. “Can I meet your friend?” he asked. Louisa marveled as she watched the grown man pantomime a handshake and rudimentary bow with the seated doll. Campbell’s screen still showed no changes.
She had to hand it to the two of them. Despite receiving no positive feedback, they dutifully worked their way through the house, pointing out possible attachments a spirit might have. Her husband’s study might be where she shared secrets and spent time with her father. Perhaps her spirit was grieving his loss, too, offered Campbell. Corey nodded astutely. The kitchen, of course, was where the family ate and she did her homework. Were there unresolved issues? A fight with her parents, perhaps? Louisa denied it.
“We loved each other very much,” she lied. She also neglected to mention they ate dinner in the dining room, not on the kitchen table that permanently housed her husband’s computer equipment.
They scoured the attic and basement, and Louisa occasionally felt ice creep along her back, heard a faint giggle as Jenny enjoyed her game of hide and seek. Campbell almost walked right through her once, but Louisa felt the spirit vanish before he could realize it. The only sign was a brief blip in temperatures. He opened his mouth to point it out, but the words died as the temperature returned to normal.
“A draft,” Louisa heard him whisper.
At eleven, they began turning lights back on and preparing to make their departure.
“We’ll call with what we found. May take us around a month to review everything and get it ready,” said Campbell, trying to remain positive. “And don’t worry. Most of the good stuff doesn’t show up until we review the tapes and all.”
She did her best to paint on an authentic smile, pouring gratitude into her words. “I really appreciate you coming out here to help. You don’t know what it means.” She had briefly returned to the bedroom to retrieve the doll Jenny had left, and now she held it in front of her. It was a soft, floppy doll dressed in a pale blue sun dress. Blue eyes were stitched on the face, along with a button nose and set of pale pink lips.
“You’ve given me such peace of mind and been so kind to my Jenny,” she began. They stood, watching her, clearly hoping for some kind of tip or reward. “I know she’d want you to have this. To remember her,” she finished, holding out the doll. They both did their best to hide their disappointment, but she had seen it before. Every team always thought this was some grand gesture of fortunes, and they were always irritated to find it a sentimental offer of a child’s toy.
Corey took it, holding it by an arm between two fingers. “Oh, we couldn’t—“
“Please,” she offered, laying a hand on his arm and drawing close. “Just as a thank you for believing me.” Campbell and Corey exchanged a glance, then both widened their smiles.
“Right, well, you’re welcome.” Corey shuffled stiffly out the front door, still holding the doll as if it might bite him. Louisa had the urge to tell him it wouldn’t be the doll that hurt him, in the end. But she held her tongue. She was getting good at that.
“We’ll be in touch,” added Campbell with his characteristic smile. With that and a tip of his head, he was gone.
Louisa closed the door, falling against it. She was once again wholly and completely alone in the house. It would not last, she knew, but she breathed a sigh of relief, no longer caged by the angry, petulant spirit of her daughter.
It had been nearly two weeks, and she was sleeping deeply, peacefully, and dreamlessly when there was suddenly a weight on the bed as something moved over the covers. Louisa sat up, feeling the cold presence settle onto her. For a moment, it was the same heft and shape as when Jenny used to crawl into her lap during a thunderstorm.
“You’re back so soon,” she whispered, half asleep and caught up in the despair of it all.
“I had to come back to you, mommy. I got angry with my new friends. Then they couldn’t play anymore.”
Tears began to slip from her eyes and down her cheek, falling through the cold mass and onto the sheets below. A cold sensation dragged along her cheek, wiping ineffectively at the stream of tears. “They won’t be able to play with anyone anymore,” said the voice, almost innocently. But there was that edge of glee, of jealous possession that haunted Louisa almost as much as the ghost of her dead daughter.
Louisa did not return to sleep that night. She could not stop thinking about the ghost hunters who finally came face to face with what they had been hunting. Only they never suspected it was hunting them as well. Guilt and panic fought for control, both eventually falling to her survival instinct.
Once the sun rose, Louisa carefully rose from bed and walked to the computer. She entered the search, flipping over to the second page to find new possibilities and trying not to think about what she might have to do when the list ran out.
Madame Ophelia, Spirit Guide. She clicked on the link.
Wow, ended up being way longer than I expected. I also feel like I may have rushed it in an attempt to get the idea out there. Depending on how I feel, you may see an update to this over the next few weeks. I’m onboard with the idea, but may need to polish the execution. Got tips? Critiques? Suggestions? Leave them in the comments!
A couple notes to wrap up!
- Happy Thanksgiving! If you are celebrating, I hope you enjoy some delicious food with family. If you’re not, I hope you have a great Thursday!
- I really enjoyed writing Milgram, and I’ve actually been working on more of it. I have another section completed, but it is likely to be rather long. I want to iron out a few pieces before posting more, but keep an eye out.
- And while your eyes are out, I am going to be posting some things about future directions for the blog, including some ideas I’ve had rolling around. No Card Challenge, but I do have some changes planned for the New Year that will help me build good writing habits. And some you may want to join me on. 🙂
- This idea was inspired by a story on the Darkest Night podcast. If you like creepy things, I’d recommend it. It is a fiction podcast about a laboratory that reviews the last memories from people who have died. And even with that plot line, there is something more sinister afoot. It’s well put together, especially the sound work. I’m in no way affiliated, but I have enjoyed it. It’s an original story, just taking inspiration from some ideas I had while listening. If you like podcasts and scary things, check it out!
Thanks for sticking with me. Happy Reading!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.