Theme: You weren’t supposed to wake up here.
From darkness to light. It all happened in an instant, the world exploding into vibrancy. I gasped— I could remember breathing, yet this felt like my first breath. The oxygen raced ragged down my throat, ripping into my lungs. It ached to breathe, it ached to see.
My brain felt unsure of how to parse the world. Light and shadow. Noises—someone was walking somewhere, something screamed, whether mechanical or animal I could not tell. There was an assault of smells that made me gag, either because they were unpleasant or because I had been so deprived. I gagged, flooding my senses with that bitter taste.
It was too much at once, and I felt myself drowning in sensation. As the flood subsided, I could piece things together, steadily understanding. Above me was the roof, wooden and in disrepair. The walls were dusty and stained. Those screams were certainly not mechanical. Those smells were certainly rot.
Worst were the shadows finding permanence. Bodies, lying on a table like the one I occupied. They lay there still, quiet, and unmoving.
And then there were the footsteps.
Something obscured my view, and my eyes struggled to refocus. Then there was a monstrous face, the source of the smell.
The eyes bulged at strange angles, barely contained by the flesh of its face. A ragged gash served as the mouth, a menagerie of teeth standing at lazy attention inside. It sniffed.
“Got another one,” it growled in a bubbling voice. It paused, head titled for a response, then shrugged. “Guess I’ll get this one.”
Rough hands on my body, like coarse stones tearing my skin. “Please,” I heard my voice, unfamiliar and harsh with disuse, “I shouldn’t be here.”
It laughed. “Of course you should. Now back to sleep.”
A needle’s pinch, then darkness.
Theme: “The door crept open”
The growl came from the closet. There was no denying the fact nor any reconciling it with reality. Lana hadn’t been sleeping and now wouldn’t be anytime soon. Instead, she stared at the wooden door and clenched the blankets about her with the primal instinct they would protect her.
“Get it together,” she whispered through gritted teeth. The impossibility required rationality to reassert itself quickly, shoving the fear to the side. “There are no monsters in closets.”
As if to prove to herself and whatever had growled, she flung the blankets aside and put her feet on the floor. Once grounded, she expected to feel safer. Instead, she felt more certain she was going mad.
Did the knob move? The door shake? Lana strained her ears to listen for anything. Was that breathing or the AC whispering through the vents?
“This is ridiculous. You outgrew this stuff in grade school.” She stood and forced her legs toward the door.
The room was chilled, her palms clammy. She studied the narrow wooden door. It only really counted as a closet so her landlord did not run afoul of housing laws; no room for monsters in there. Lana gripped the handle and took a breath.
“Grow up, Lana,” she growled to herself in a final act of motivation.
The door crept open and–
There was Nothing.
Nothing, vast, infinite, and dark. Stretching into eternity and beyond for impossible depth. How was emptiness so much worse than everything she had imagined?
As the Void reached out to draw her in, Lana longed for fangs, fur, and claws.
Theme: “Laughter filled the air.”
Dave sat on the edge of the bed and shifted again, loosening the tie around his neck and grinning at the woman across from him. Susan? Sarah? One of those typical names. However, she was far from typical, he began to realize.
“So, I don’t normally do this. I know, big shock.” His nervous laughter filled the air, bouncing off the freshly pressed sheets and dusty curtains.
She just smiled, that same absent smile that had been plastered on her face since he opened the door. She tilted her head, and Dave got the sudden image of a gyroscope, her head rotating around the stable point of that lipsticked smile.
The woman at the bar had led the conversation, steadily building Dave’s confidence to Icarian levels. When he slyly passed his room key to her, he felt certain of the move. And then instantly expected her to laugh him away. Instead, she raised an eyebrow and tucked the key into the distractingly low neckline of her dress.
And now, that smile.
“Can I get you something to drink?” he asked nervously. “I got ice from the machine earlier, and—“
Her finger was on his lips, gently silencing him. She smiled wider and leaned over the edge of the bed. Maybe, Dave thought, this was normal and he was the weird one. Frankly, that had held true in most of his life.
“You’re the boss,” he said with another burst of nervous laughter.
“Oh, I’m much more than that,” she said. And the smile grew wider, showing more teeth than fit in a human jaw. Had they always been that sharp?
With practiced ease, she flew to his throat, successfully cutting off the scream before it could bubble out. The hunt looked different nowadays, but the outcome never changed.
Episodes: 10 in the story
Length: 45-70 minutes per episode
I’ve listened to… every episode
Transcripts Available: Currently up through episode five, linked here
The Premise: The city of Everton, built by two brothers after World War II, was meant to be a sanctuary. And then it disappeared. Now two agents must find out what happened to the people of Everton. The journey will take through impossible realities, astral existence, Arthurian legends, and danger in every step.
My Review: Margaret’s Garden is created by Midnight Disease, the same folks responsible for the wonderful podcast that is SCP Archives. They bring the same talent and excellent production to this standalone story set in its own fantastic world. I finished listening to Margaret’s Garden about a few weeks ago, and I am still thinking about the incredible story that unfolded in these ten episodes. It is amazing how much work and creativity was poured into this story, and the final product is truly remarkable.
The podcast takes place both in semi-present day and the time shortly after WWII. It switches between the two timeframes, guided deftly by the wonderful narrator. The narrator plays an integral role, acting as an omniscient presence guiding the story, providing context, and bringing listeners along. There is ample direct address to the audience, creating a sense of familiarity with the world and experiences. And when things get hard to follow, the narration provides an anchor to tie information together.
The story also alternates between the world we know and the world of the astral plane. Each setting is slowly explored over the course of the story, developing into their own world with rules and expectations. This, of course, adds a remarkable degree of complexity to the storyline. However, it always feels manageable based on the talented storytelling. When I say there is a lot that happens in these ten episodes, I mean a LOT. There are love stories, horror stories, legends, wars, conquests, and universes all contained within the ten episode run. I do not think I have really come across a podcast telling a story quite like this, though it certainly shares themes and concepts seen elsewhere. The breadth and complexity of the story is standout.
The writing, in both dialogue and narration, is phenomenal. Each character has their own tone, motivation, weaknesses, and story. The decisions they make, especially how they react to what they do not know or fear, drives the plot forward in a very organic way. It provides ample opportunities for characters to learn and grow…or stay in their faulty ways of thinking and sacrifice everything. Given how, frankly, bizarre some things can be, the use of description and narration is balanced carefully with the dialogue and sound design to ensure scenes are comprehensive and engaging, even as it stretches the bounds of what one can imagine.
The themes addressed are weighty. What would you do to be safe? To be loved? To build a better world? To be powerful? In the character’s successes and missteps, a remarkable world rises and falls. It does not try to maintain simplistic views on the good guys and the bad guys. Each character is complex, with understandable motivations and, often, questionable means to meet their needs. And that make sit hard to know what will happen next or even what outcome the listener should be rooting for. And yet it manages to tell a powerful story that addresses this complexity and refuses to stoop to solving it with a neat bow.
Overall, Margaret’s Garden is a beautifully constructed story with a whole group or intriguing and realistic characters. The production team behind it is talented, and so every aspect has been carefully polished to be a wonderful listening experience. The acting is engaging, creating characters a listener can know and care about. The writing balances a host of competing storylines and themes in order to tell a full and satisfying story in multiple times and places. It is a wonderful piece that blends sci-fi, fantasy, supernatural, and horror themes into something new and different. And you should definitely buckle in and listen.
Episodes: 13 full episodes with three prologues, and epilogue, and a full supercut available.
Length: 15-30 minutes per episode, with the supercut totaling 222 minutes
I’ve listened to… Everything
Transcripts Available: Yes, linked here
The Premise: Two scientists discover evidence of an abandoned world and set off on a journey to uncover what happened to the missing civilization. The story is told in alternating segments from the perspectives of the scientists, one starting from the beginning and the other from the end of the story.
My Review: As I mentioned last week when discussing Primordial Deep, it is wholly my oversight not to talk about Janus Descending earlier. For sci-fi horror, you really cannot go wrong listening to this story, and they have a sequel story in the works now. When I saw something new show up in the Janus Descending feed, I immediately loaded it up to listen and was so excited. So let me tell you why you should listen.
Chel and Peter are the main characters, and episodes alternate between their personal logs. These logs are made up of descriptive information about the planet and their discoveries alongside personal reflections and monologues. They both know the other may be listening, and so they also serve as notes between the two, messages separated in time. Chel and Peter have very different approaches to the discovery, with Peter often taking a more cautious approach, while Chel is chasing the excitement of exploration. Between their two perspectives, the listener gets a clearer sense of the reality of their situation. It is one filled with wonder and riddled with danger, a fact neither of them can fully understand until later on.
While they give away the ending very early on, the context develops slowly, providing multiple layers of discovery and appreciation over the course of episodes. So, even though I knew the ending from the very start, I cannot say I fully understood or appreciated it until much later, as comments became clear and the reality sank in. The alternating perspectives also served to fill in the gaps, as one character might experience something described by the other at another part. It was enjoyable having the chance to put the pieces together and reconstruct the story as it developed, filling in the missing pieces from both the start and end.
Aside from Directive and Seren, I’m not sure I’ve had as emotional a reaction to an audiodrama as I did with Janus Descending. There is something beautiful and tragic in the unfolding story of these characters. They become so complete in the telling of the story, and something about knowing the end makes it all the more poignant. It is truly a beautiful story set in a very terrifying world.
Of course, the plot centers around exploration of an alien world. And this is handled wonderfully, telling a tense story with excellent pacing, careful reveals, and building unease. The alien concept is not necessarily unheard of, and fans of sci-fi staples will probably recognize familiar ideas. However, the way it develops and is presented sets it apart from other similar works. It takes these familiar threads and weaves them in a different way, using clever moments of obscurity and revelation to savor the exploration of the world they have encountered.
Overall, Janus Descending is a podcast that has stuck with me since I first listened. It is the kind of story I wish I could write, done masterfully. It combines sci-fi and horror elements that are familiar, but through careful work and thoughtful character development, spins those into a new listening experience. It remarkably balances character and plot, developing both in chronological and reverse order simultaneously. The attention to detail in the characters and themes of the story makes it feel cohesive from start to finish, weaving a beautifully tragic tale of space exploration that deserves plenty of listens. If you like sci-fi/horror podcasts, this is pretty much required listening.
And again, they absolutely deserve all the support you can provide. So please, help them keep creating new shows, like the upcoming sequel to Janus Descending, Descendants.
Episodes: 7 episodes + a prologue and epilogue in season 1.
Length: 45 – 75 minutes (and worth every second)
I’ve listened to… all of season 1.
Transcripts Available: Yes, linked here
The Premise: A crew is sent deep under the sea in order to investigate strange happenings. However, it becomes quickly evident that there is more under the water than anyone bargained for, and their employer must know more than he let on.
My Review: No Such Things Productions are the creative geniuses behind Janus Descending which, after realizing I have not already reviewed it, will be reviewed next week in eager anticipation of their new story in the Janus Descending world. But today’s focus is on Primordial Deep, a sci-fi horror show set in the deep oceans of our very own planet. Continuing with the theme of the strange, horrifying, and alien, this earth-bound tale weaves a fantastic and heart wrenching story.
I’m writing this fresh off of the season finale. And woah. Let me tell you, it is a spooky ride, but one that you should definitely join. The cast of characters really makes this work a masterpiece. A story like this with carboard characters who can live or die without any emotion would fall into anonymity with hundreds of similar stories. But the amount of life brought to each character in this story is remarkable. It is a character story told in a horrific setting, with stakes increasing moment by moment.
The classic conflicts are human vs. human, human vs. self, and human vs. nature. Primordial Deep manages to weave all three of these conflicts into one single story, with constantly shifting threats from within and without. The writing balances danger and periods of quiet well, but never lets the listener feel too comfortable. If it is not monsters, it’s the boss or a character’s own thoughts that threaten to destroy the team and mission. The pacing is wonderful in this regard. The show spends time learning about, understanding, and developing characters both during times of distress and times of relative quiet. In turn, the listener develops a strong relationship with them.
There are a lot of heavy hits in this show, and it is not for the faint of heart. The story is unapologetically dense, tackling a lot of difficult themes around life, relationships, grief, guilt, and belonging. However, these are consistent with the overall themes of the story and the developmental needs of the characters. Each person comes in with their strengths, weaknesses, and works in progress. As humans, they are messy, hurting each other in their attempts to keep self and others safe. No one reacts perfectly to every situation, and it provides a level of realism to the otherwise sci-fi setting.
Admittedly, I am one of those people who does not trust the ocean on a good day, and this audiodrama has provided me ample reasons to stay far away in the future. There are creatures in here, and the development and creativity of these is incredible. They provide varying levels of threat, making it often hard to know what is dangerous and what isn’t….until it is. I am not a marine biologist, but the descriptions and explanations presented also felt really consistent throughout. Is it scientifically accurate? I have no idea. Is it convincing and well-developed in a fictional setting? Absolutely.
And the sound. It is very atmospheric, which is really crucial for a story where the setting is as much a character as any of the voice actors. They provide a great background for what is happening and allow the listener to discover some of the secrets of the ocean alongside the characters, based on the well-designed sound cues. I think the investigative tone of the initial mission also functions well in the audiodrama format, as characters provide scientific descriptions of creatures encountered and their behavior. I left most episodes with a great mental picture of what was going on, whether I wanted to imagine such things or not.
Overall, if the preceding paragraphs have not given it away entirely, Primordial Deep is a horrifically good sci-fi story about the dangers under the water. It develops the characters well in order to fully engage the listener, and then holds them there with wonderfully developed sound design and expert writing. Once the story takes off, it does not slow down much, hurtling toward greater stakes and danger each step of the way. It’s worth listening to, and with all of season 1 released, it is definitely worth binging so you can eagerly wait for more.
Also, one moment, but this creative group is one that absolutely should be swimming (pun only moderately intended) in Patreon support. So if you can support them, please do, because I need them to be around a long time creating such wonderful shows.
Episodes: 8 publicly available. Patreon supporters have access to episodes in a weekly format ahead of public release, with a total of 47 weekly episodes currently available for $5 and up Patrons.
Length: Monthly cuts are 35-45 minutes in length. Weekly episodes are 5-10 minutes each.
I’ve listened to… All 7 public episodes and maybe (definitely) all the Patreon episodes. I got hooked.
The Premise: Arthur Lester awakens with two startling revelations. He cannot see, and there is another voice inside his head. The story follows him and this entity as they try to understand what has happened, getting drawn deeper and deeper into a web of otherworldly conspiracies that put them both at risk. Using the Chaosium system to provide some additional framework to the story, it takes the listener on a mystery adventure deep through cosmic horror unknowns.
My Review: In the interest of all transparency, this creator reached out to me on Reddit and asked me to review the series. I had been eyeing the episodes for a while, so decided to take a listen. After listening to the 7 monthly cuts of episodes widely available, I decided it was well worth the $5 investment to get access to more, and I have just been listening to as many as possible since.
Malevolent is cosmic horror, and it delves into that genre quickly with rituals, sacrifices, ancient evils, and plenty of bizarre deaths and evocations. If you are familiar with lovecraftian stories, this will feel familiar, but far from stale. The plot twists and turns into danger every step of the way, constantly ratcheting up tension, while using brief moments of pause to summarize and reflect on what needs to happen next. One thing I found very interesting is that each of the weekly episodes ends with a choice that $10 and up Patrons can vote on, determining which path the characters will follow. I think the plot works seamlessly around these plot points, and even with outside control, the writing ensures the decisions are consistent with the world and characters as they are developing. The story also does a great job of providing subtle hints and clues throughout the story so that listeners can begin to piece things together. It is hard to create a sense of the uncanny through audio alone, but Malevolent manages to incorporate by providing just enough details so that the listener begins to realize the pieces aren’t aligning. And then the bizarre shines through, mimicking that real world feeling.
Arthur is the main character, a private investigator now being forced to solve what may be an impossible mystery for human minds to comprehend. The stakes are high; an entity has moved into his head and, while seemingly an ally, there is no guarantee that the arrangement will last forever or end well for Arthur. He is a sympathetic character, and I find he demonstrates a good level of thoughtfulness in the story, while also having his moments of panic and helplessness. While we might all like to imagine we would escape mostly unscathed, Arthur shows how easily human ingenuity can be eclipsed by the otherworldly.
The Entity, which is the title I will use to avoid any potential spoilers, is just as stuck as Arthur, and yet may know more than they are letting on. That’s a great deal of the character tension, because while they are working together, Arthur and the Entity are in adversarial roles simply due to their situation. As details emerge, they serve to further complicate the tenuous partnership. The Entity also fills in some of the details and provides an excellent narrative voice. Since Arthur cannot see, the Entity explains things as they happen. I think this allows the story to sidestep one of the potential pitfalls in audiodrama in general. The audience is provided a detailed descriptions of characters, scenes, and events. This made me feel like I was getting the chance to play along, wondering if Arthur would take the same thing from encounters or places that I did, following the same leads.
The sound design for episodes is also fantastic. I think the story is served well with a blind main character. Arthur is just as surprised by sudden sounds and noises, and it creates a deeper sense of immersion. Additionally, the spooky noises, background sound effects, and wonderful skill of additional voice actors really serves to create a dynamic and engaging world. (Correction, all the voices are provided by ONE PERSON! Even more impressive, because I had no idea.) It is very easy to get sucked in and walk alongside Arthur through his perilous journey. I found episodes flying by as I listened, caught up in a world I could not see, but could easily experience.
As a brief aside, the story does use the Chaosium system, as stated in materials. I am not an actual-play podcast person, nor have I played an in-depth RPG-style tabletop game (but plenty of other tabletop games). I mention it to say, after reading up a bit on the system and some of the Call of Cthulhu rulebook, I can see how the system helps provide some additional structure to the story. That said, it is not an actual-play podcast and does not use dice rolls. I also never found myself lost or confused because I do not have the RPG experience. My one hesitation prior to listening was the reference to Chaosium and worries that I would be in the dark. Fortunately, I have not found that to be the case in the slightest.
Overall, I am so glad I gave this a listen. It is a great spooky story where the unraveling tale keeps me hooked. I am working to put the pieces together as the story develops, feeling like I am walking alongside Arthur and the Entity as they get pulled in deeper and deeper. The writing is strong, dialogue well written and acted, and sound design on point to create an immersive experience. I have been able to get lost in the world and the mystery of Malevolent, and I think it is an excellent listen if you need a little more otherworldly terror in your life. And who doesn’t, right?
In Another Room
Length: 30-45 Minutes
I’ve listened to… All of it
The Premise: Wendy Morrow is exploring a notoriously haunted house. Each episode tells the story of a room as Wendy tries to understand not only what has happened in the past, but what is in store for her after she is caught within the house’s clutches.
My Review: If you like haunted house stories and great ghost stories, then this podcast is almost certain to have something for you. While each story deals with a specific room in the house, it is definitely designed to be listened to in order so that you can understand the workings of the house. Each room holds a clue to what happened, but more importantly what is keeping the souls trapped. The frame story with Wendy is also well-crafted, focusing on her need to understand the supernatural at the expense of the rest of her life.
The individual ghost stories are told well and have some familiar themes. To be fair, it is tough to come up with new ghost story themes, because it has been a genre since the start of time. However, the delivery of each story, as well as the interplay between time and setting, creates some unique experiences even with familiar concepts. It innovates on a theme that many will find familiar, turning it into something new. It is a haunted house, not only because it is inhabited by spirits, but because each spirit is haunted in their own way as well.
Some of the stories really stuck with me. They were well-written, well-acted, and showcased a great mix of complex characters throughout. The stories develop a claustrophobic feel as they explore the injustice of those trapped, and the same feelings spill over into the present-day experience with Wendy beautifully. Wendy’s story becomes its own standalone cautionary tale, following someone driven to the edges by grief, even to the point of missing life right in front of them. In many ways, she is trapped before she ever steps foot in the house, and so it is interesting to follow in her footsteps deeper into the mire that exists.
Overall,Iin Another Room took a lot of ghost story ideas and blended them into a unique and intriguing story. It creates a sense of chaos and confusion that brings setting and characters alive throughout the story. Voices blend over each other, time shifts, and everything that happens within the house has the feel of solid reality and complete fantasy rolled together. It is spooky and unsettling in all the best ways, ultimately reworking the idea of a haunted house in a way I am really glad I got to hear. It reminded me of campfire stories from my childhood, but grown up with an air of polish that kept me eagerly listening episode after episode.
You can find them here: In Another Room
I’ve been a gone a bit. That probably comes as no surprise because, hey, it’s 2020 and life has been a chaotic ride. That said, I am getting back into the swing of things. Or trying because it is 2020, so best laid plans and all of that…
To kickstart the process, I would like to cover a roundup of a few new items that have popped up over the past few months (no specific time frame because, to be honest, I can’t tell one month from the next). These are stories that I have found organically, been following creators from prior projects, or been contacted by the creators as a review request. I did a similar roundup before and found it a nice change of pace. There is no unifying theme to the ones I chose beyond being things I have listened to recently that are not quite long enough yet for me to review fully on their own. Who knows, maybe you will find something new to listen to!
So, in the interest of all transparency, I supported the Kickstarter for Unseen. As someone who truly has enjoyed other Long Story Short Productions’ podcasts, I threw my money at them when I heard there was a new show. I have written previously about the “end of the world” anthology series Zero Hours. And it’s also the creators of Wolf 359 (which I still won’t review, because IT’S SOOOOOOOOO GOOD” is not a valid review). Each episode is a standalone story taking place in a world much like ours, but where magic is real. Some humans can see it, most cannot. The themes of the story deal with very universal experiences in terms of love, belonging, purpose, and understanding. There are five episodes out currently, and so I am sneaking them in here because it is such a new release. The stories have been diverse so far, but engaging and interesting all the same. I have enjoyed learning about the world through the episodes, and I look forward to see what more is developed.
Now for some spooky sci-fi horror happenings deep under the sea. Primordial Deep is the story of a team setting out to find a sea monster. Throw in some shady secret organizations, a great cast of characters that are charming and repulsive, and a history of incredible work from this team (creators of Janus Descending-which if you haven’t heard, you should go listen to RIGHT NOW), and you have an absolute thrilling start to a show. While trying to find a sea monster is a terrifying enough premise, deep below water there exists many wonderful and horrific creatures. The character development in the first few episodes has been really great, and I cannot wait to see how this team responds to what will surely be increasingly dangerous straits over the season.
I’ll be completely honest and say I am not sure if this was one I found organically from Reddit or from their request to review, but either way, I have enjoyed the two episodes so far. It is a fantasy story and, as I have mentioned somewhere on this mess of a blog before, fantasy is kind of my first love. It tells the story of two Azure Scouts sent to find their nation’s greatest, most legendary hero to save the day from encroaching evil. While they do reach him they are unable to leave right away and so remain, hearing the true stories behind his exploits. I have so far found it well written and acted. The frame story works well and leads to a more anthology-type experience; however they are obviously all linked and developing the same story and world. I am really excited to learn more about the world, creatures, and systems at place in Matysia. Bonus: The title link will take you to their youtube page where episodes are narrated and accompanied by soem pretty cool illustrations!
By the wonderful group working on the SCP Archives is a new spooky story. This tale is about uncovering the mystery of what happened to the purported utopia of Everton. The story not only takes place in the relative modern day, but also during the development of Everton, providing parallel storylines that will (hopefully) shine some light on the many mysteries surrounding Everton. Episode one introduces the story and throws in some secretive government agencies, cosmonauts, and a good mix of cult references. Fans of SCP Archives will definitely recognize some familiar and very talented voice actors, and it makes for a very enjoyable, immersive listening experience. There are two current episodes, and I am really excited to listen to episode two as soon as I can, because episode one started some great threads that I cannot wait to follow!
I think almost every audiodrama I followed has recently pointed me toward The Oyster, and I am very thankful. The Oyster tells the story of humanity after catastrophic environmental changes force everyone underground. The catch, however, is that only about 80% of the population was able to be saved. Decisions were made based on a values-point system and integrated neurological technology. If you are thinking that sounds like a great recipe for some dystopian shenanigans, you would be right! For those in the bunkers, hope comes in the form of Eden 2070, a return to a habitable part of the surface. However, resources are short, and so challenging questions arise about how humanity can survive. Enter The Oyster Project, a way to save resources while suspending people’s consciousness in a state of enlightened bliss. This comes from the folks who created Darkest Night, and there are definitely some similar themes in terms of neurologic/cognitive science and how that can be used or twisted. One of the other things I really like is that they have woven in some modern terrors, including climate change and systemic racism, to show how horrifying it can be. It is uncomfortable not only because of the futuristic, sci-fi terrors, but also because it brings up some ugly truths about the world we already live in.
(I did not find a support link. Please let me know if there is one so I can update accordingly!)
This is another Reddit find! Have you ever wondered what NPR would sound like if superheroes existed? Well, wonder no more with SPR – Superhuman Public Radio. They manage to really evoke the style and approach of NPR, while addressing the fantastic reality of a world with superheroes and villains’. The first episode explores how the gig economy effects supervillainy, and I found it incredibly charming. The parody ads set in-universe made me smile, and the tenor of the stories had the reassurance of a soothing NPR story, while also introducing some great comedic and thoughtful ideas. If you want something a little more lighthearted in your feeds and like a good superhero story, then I think this will fit the bill nicely.
The creator for this final podcast reached out to me via the contact form and requested a review. It is a supernatural story focused on an unnamed narrator investigating the weird and the unexplainable. Which, honestly, is right up my alley, so I was happy to listen and review. There are two episodes so far. The first one I think threw me as I was not 100% sure what to expect, but as the pieces came together, it introduced some interesting ideas for supernatural investigation. I went into the second episode with a clearer expectation and found myself easily immersed in the story. The initial episodes allude to a relatively complex world in Arcane, and I only have a few glimpses so far. What I have heard has caught my attention, and I look forward to learning more as new episodes release.
(Also could not find a support link. Happy to update!)
Call of the Void
Episodes: 7 of the 9 episode story arc.
Length: 20-25 minutes
I’ve listened to… Everything so far. Cannot wait for the finale!
The Premise: I mentioned them in my January 2020 roundup for new podcasts, so you may have heard of them already. Hopefully after hearing about them you started listening to them! If not, now is a great time to catch-up before their finale episode in a couple weeks. The Call of the Void follows Topher and Etsy as they try to uncover what is making people go blind, lose all reason, and rave about the coming of the Void. It is a Lovecraftian horror story that starts and circles back to the Louisiana swamps.
My Review: Reading the description of this podcast, I was pretty sure I was already going to be a fan. Horror? Mystery and occult? Southern setting? It’s all very much in line with my interests. And once I listened to the first episode, I was pretty eager to learn more. As the season has developed, I think they have introduced some really solid ideas. The approach is familiar if you have read or listened to much in the Lovecraftian genre, but they keep some unique twists that help this standout from many similar stories. The mystery illness that strikes is especially intriguing to me and develops into an eerie monster in its own right as it creeps throughout the season. At this point, I have all kinds of theories about what might be going on, and I can’t wait to see how right or wrong I am.
The characters are also very solidly written and feel rather realistic. Topher and Etsy are the primary focus, with other supporting cast serving to flesh the characters out, keep things moving, and provide some extra impetus for the action. The relationships between characters feel very authentic and serve to provide some reasonable justification for their actions and behaviors. The relationship between Topher and Etsy is developed well, because they go from relative strangers to more or less cooperative partners on this mystery. There is a bit of a nod towards romance, but it is not a particularly strong theme at this point in the series, which I appreciate.
As a contained storyline, the podcast really hits the pacing well. Each episodes presents problems, solves some, and creates leads for others. They move pretty briskly through the action, but with the illness taking its unstoppable course through Topher’s father, there is always a timer counting down to tragedy. It does not feel rushed, however, and the content is strong enough to keep the excitement high throughout each episode. I’m always impressed by how much material they have packed into each episode, but also how well exposition and action are balanced.
In the end, the story has been intriguing and kept me excited to hear how all the pieces fit together and the myth unravels. It is Lovecraftian in style, executed well, and plays on familiar themes in ways that fit the settings and characters well. There are also some unique revelations that serve to set this story apart from similar media. The acting, design, and writing have seemed to hit a solid stride as the episodes progress. They are set to have nine episodes in the series, and if all remains the same with the schedule, episode eight releases tomorrow. So you have a week to get caught up before the finale, and I highly recommend you do so. It’s been a fun ride, and I cannot wait to see how they wrap it all up.
You can find them here: The Call of the Void
Old Gods of Appalachia
Episodes: 10 Episodes in Season 1
Length: 20-35 minutes, with some shorter half-episodes
I’ve listened to… All of season 1.
The Premise: A horror anthology that tells the story of Appalachia and the gods who live there, blessing and cursing the people around them. It is set in an Alternate or Shadow Appalachia from the one of our world, but uses some familiar themes. Season One tells the story of Barlo, KY in 1917 as the mining town makes it offering to the gods all around them.
My Review: This was the podcast I didn’t know I needed until I started listening to it. Raised in the South of the US with family history running through the Appalachia region, there is a lot of the setting that is unassumingly normal for me, especially in the way family, religion, and work are all intertwined.
They bill themselves as Lovecraftian horror, and this is truly what I wish other Lovecraftian horror aspired to. It is not Cthulhu and cultists in every corner, but plays on themes of ancient evils in a ways that are perfectly matched to the setting. Rather than being an imitation of the genre, it makes it all its own. (The creators have, in light of Lovecraft’s noted racism and xenophobia, opted to remove reference of “Lovecraftian” from their description. I have updated my description in light of that, but felt this discussion specifically is relevant to the story. Additionally, I feel like this podcast was so much grander than the term “Lovecraftian” conveyed, hence my statements above. I have made changes to reflect that distance, while preserving the message.)
The voice acting is perfectly set to the tone, genre, and setting. It is paced beautifully, which can be a real struggle with this kind of story. Talking in a steady drawl can make things feel like they’re dragging (trust me, I’ve heard it often enough to know). But instead, it serves to draw out the tension of each moment as needed, then provide the satisfying conclusion before delving into yet another scene. It is a very polished and professional podcast.
Beyond the execution, the concept and plot are truly thoughtful and terrifying. This is a horror podcast that does not shy away from discussing the unsettling, the heart wrenching, and the downright horrifying. It tells a story of destruction, blood, and fire in a very moving way. The writing is absolutely spot-on throughout. It carries a consistent theme and tone through the storytelling aspect, but also in the intros and outros. There is never a reason to break immersion and, to be honest, you won’t want to. I’d hate to live in the Appalachia where these old gods reside, but I also find myself drawn deeper and deeper in. And maybe that’s all a part of it.
The story is chilling and unsettling, speaking of old and ancient evil. And while it’s not in our Appalachia, so much of the danger and the darkness is uncomfortably familiar. It seems as if it touches on those primitive fears that have always plagued humanity, daring to turn the light onto those things we have collectively tried to bar from our minds. And if all of that is out there, you definitely want to hold tight to family and try your best to survive what’s to come.
You can find them here: Old Gods of Appalachia
The White Vault
Episodes: 38 so far, with ten each in the first two seasons. Also has some between season mini-episodes.
Length: 20-30 minutes, generally
I’ve listened to… Through what has been released of season 3.
The Premise: The story starts out following an expedition to a remote monitoring site outside of Svalbard. Once there, the team is stranded and discovers a strange city under the ice. Which is only the start of their problems. Made up of found audio files from the team, The White Vault tells a great horror tale about isolation, ancient evil, and survival.
My Review: The White Vault is one of those podcasts that was recommended every time I turned around, so I finally gave it a listen. And then became one of the people recommending it regularly. The story initially begins innocently enough as the characters and expectations are introduced. However, there is a general sense of unease which begins building early and develops over the course of the story. The outpost they travel to is very remote, and that alone is enough to establish a sense of foreboding. It is unsettling to know how disconnected they are, and that builds as natural and supernatural phenomena coalesce to make departure much more difficult. The creeping sense of threat is executed well, starting with small and easily dismissed oddities. It builds as the danger begins to take a more definite shape and the peril that the team is in comes into sharper focus.
A story like this really shines based on its characters. Isolation horror with a poorly developed cast is not very satisfying. But each character that has been introduced in the world of The White Vault has been well-developed and engaging. The story works because, as a listener, you are invested in what happens to the character you have grown fond of. They each have unique goals, values, hobbies, and interpersonal styles that help them to stand out as unique characters, but also create their unique predisposing risk factors.
Also, the sound quality and effects are great in this. Audiodrama relies a lot on environmental storytelling, and having only auditory input can make that a real challenge. The White Vault skillfully uses sound effects and background conversations to provide more context to the script. AS a listener, you have the chance to hear it and then have that confirmed, so you get the sense of discovery alongside them. In addition, the dialogue is done in a way that feels natural, but also fills in the gaps. I rarely find myself confused by what is happening because I cannot parse a sound effect, but even when I’m unsure, the dialogue is crafted well enough to very naturally fill in any gaps. It does also include a narrator providing some additional context regarding time, locations, and organization, but does so in a very skilled way. The narrator does not feel like a cop out or a short cut to good audio storytelling, but instead serves to enhance it and create yet another layer of mystery about how and why these tapes came to be collected.
If I had to make a criticism, I would say things sometimes feel a little convenient to the plot or anticipated. Season three is structurally quite similar to season one, but it has been unique in it’s own right as well. Just when you think you have it figured out, something comes flying from the shadows to turn things upside down. So I have not found it to be overly predictable or stale as it has developed, but it definitely has a storytelling language that points the way. Personally, I have found learning the language of the story to be very enjoyable. Speaking of language, one really interesting thing is the use of language. The team members are from all different locales, and so it weaves in all kinds of languages. All relevant information is translated into English (with the exception of some chatter or non-central dialogue–I’m pretty sure), so you’ll know what is going on. But as someone who loves languages, I enjoy hearing the different ones and trying to do my own translation for those I do speak.
The White Vault tells a really creepy story in an expertly paced fashion. Horror and isolation are natural fits, and this is a great example of why they work so well. In my neck of the woods, it’s been pretty cold. And I’ve found that I keep craving more episodes to submerge myself in the icy, terrifying world and learn what comes next. The anticipation in season three is killing me, and so I am hanging on eagerly for each episode. If you like horror, ancient mysteries, exploration, or that creepy and lonely feeling, The White Vault delivers in a big way.
You can find them here: The White Vault
Episodes: 16 episodes in two seasons. Season 3 is set to start in October!
Length: Generally around 15-25 minutes
I’ve listened to… All the episodes released so far. I cannot wait for season 3!
The Premise: Creatures show up in the sky. If you look at them, you die. And the world circles the drain pretty quickly thereafter,, but things manage to keep going from bad to worse as new dangers appear. The survivors must try to understand what happened, what is happening, and what is going to happen if humanity hopes to survive at all.
My Review: If you have been looking for some very well done post-apocalyptic horror, this is a great podcast. It is dark and pulls no punches showcasing just how terrible the end of the world can be. There are monsters and there are people turned monsters, and humanity is safe from neither. Not to say there are not bright spots and good people, too, but there is also not an attempt to paint silver linings to the grey clouds.
There has been a recent surge in apocalyptic media using this theme of the danger of sense (be they sight, sound, or otherwise). The Phenomenon has some concepts that show up in other such properties, but manages to rise well above others. The tag line of the show is simple: “Do not look outside. Do not look at the sky. Do not make noise.” And from this simple directive, they derive so many surprising developments and challenges. What I think makes The Phenomenon so great is that the threat is not static. Whether from within or without, there is a dynamism to the show that suggests the truth– and possibly salvation–is always just a step beyond what is known. It does what good stories do, however, in that as new information is revealed, new challenges and wrinkles show up to keep the tension high.
The sound design is great; I find this particularly audiodrama very immersive because of that. It complements an great script and the excellent work of their voice actors. Overall production of the show seems to be top notch, and so it makes for a really engaging listening experience. The story is expansive in scope, but is well crafted from start to finish.
Speaking of expansive, there are a lot of characters to get to know. I think that was my biggest challenge overall as I started listening to the podcast. I had some trouble keeping everyone organized as to who they were, how they related to other characters, and even where they were at times. As the show has gone on, I have gotten better about this…and some characters no longer need to be accounted for. Like I said, it definitely does not pull punches when it comes to being a rather dark exploration of humanity after an apocalypse.
I have routinely been surprised by the twists and turns this story takes. If you have seen and heard of similar stories and thought this fits the same mold, you’re probably like me and probably just as mistaken as I was. The Phenomenon really excels not only in the quality of the product, but in the creative development of its story. The plot borrows some themes from apocalyptic stories (and of course it does, that’s the genre) but finds ways to make those new. There is a careful balance throughout of hope and hopelessness that is so delicately crafted, it elevates other themes from the genre, such as the search for safety or a “cure.”
Overall, The Phenomenon really showcases how great apocalyptic fiction can be. It shows all facets of humanity when faced with such peril. Characters are good, bad, and everything in between, making impossible decisions in impossible scenarios that, frankly, get worse by the day. It is realistic, shocking, and beautiful. I can highly recommend it and suggest you catch up on the first two season before the release of Season 3.
You can find them here: The Phenomenon
Episodes: 27, if I counted correctly
Length: Episode length varies, from around 15 minutes to an hour. Usually they fall somewhere around the 30 minute mark.
I’ve listened to… All the episodes released so far. Also some of the Patron Bonus Episodes.
The Premise: If you aren’t familiar with SCP, let’s have a little bit of an internet history lesson. So the SCP Foundation is a collaborative writing project detailing steps taken to handle dangerous or unusual non-human entities that show up. The Foundation exists to Secure, Contain, Protect. There is a wiki with tons of stories, ranging from great to not so great, I am sure. Anyone can try their hand at introducing an entity, discussing how it is contained, and weaving an interesting myth together in the form of a secure government documents. The podcast takes and narrates some of these case files, including the narrative write-up as well as recordings and documents related to encounters with the entity. Each episode stands alone, detailing information about a single entity. At times there may be some overlap or reference to other SCPs in the episodes, but those are not necessary to understand what’s going on.
My Review: I first heard about the SCP Foundation when I was really active in the creepypasta community. They were kind of another branch of creepy internet stuff, but everything was contained in this world of the Foundation. I never got involved because it felt kind of overwhelming. When I heard about the podcast, I decided it was time to dip my toe in the water. I’m kind of glad I don’t have more free time on my hands, because otherwise I think I would end up way too deep.
The podcast handles the stories very well. The narrator has the perfect ominous voice to read over the standard case information. When the episodes move into more first person experiences, the voice acting has typically been spot on. The sound effects are used well, and it manages to set a great atmosphere.
The writing quality varies to some degree given the various authors, but it has always been solid. Some of the stories are incredibly creepy and unsettling. Others are rather lighthearted. Then some are creepy and absurd all at once. There are a couple I still don’t completely get, but I kind of think that’s the point. There are some entities out there that we simply can’t understand, but we still must be protected from them. The variability in tone is a positive from my perspective, because I never quite know what to expect when I queue up an episode. I have enjoyed almost all of them, and even those that were not my precisely brewed cup of tea were still a good story.
It’s October, month of all things unsettling, scary, and downright terrifying. I think if you are looking for something to get you in that creepy mood, SCP Archives will be perfect. They have done a great job selecting cases from the vast SCP Foundation, and each one they have put out has been enjoyable in its own way. They run from funny to terrifying, so its a little bit of a gamble when you start one up. Still, what better way to celebrate than some fun and some terror all rolled into one? And, let’s be honest, it’s good enough that I’m sure they’ll have you hooked even after October ends.
You can find them here: SCP Archives
Episodes: 8 episodes so far
Length: Generally around 30-45 minutes
I’ve listened to… everything put out so far.
The Premise: A group of hopeful actresses show up at Annabelle Crowe’s residence for an acting workshop. Only they accidentally summon a demon overlord, like you do. Now it is up to these women and some helpful (or not) companions to just mostly try to survive the whole demon thing.
My Review: As someone who grew up on the corny movies on the Sci-Fi (now Syfy, what?) channel and a healthy dose of MST3K, this show is perfect. It is an audiodrama that lovingly plays with so many of the horror tropes, but takes them in unexpected directions. Or sometimes plays them up for the humor. I mean, they do have a priest there, after all. Maybe. He has a priest ID, so who can question that? If you like horror that knows how to laugh, then this is definitely something worth listening to.
The concept is good, bouncing between some really unsettling horror ideas and some honestly funny moments. The narrator in the series, who I think knows more than she’s letting on, has a great tone about her that helps balance the mood of the story as a whole. It provides some nice transitions, some good foreshadowing, and adds an additional level of mystery to what is really going on in Crowe House. The podcast overall is really well written and well-acted. So often, people try for these self-mocking style stories, but end up falling flat by either taking themselves too seriously or not taking the story seriously enough. Calling Darkness manages to balance those very well so far. The story is good and well-executed, not leaving glaring holes or inconsistencies. The characters are interesting and well-acted by their voice actors. And at the same time, they lovingly mock themselves and other tropes within the genre.
Speaking of characters, I think this is a true strength of the podcast. The characters are all stereotypical to a degree, but play up those qualities for plot and character development. So many stories miss the mark when playing around with stereotypical characters because they leave them in that role. Calling Darkness has already done a great job demonstrating character growth, development, and depth. So what starts out as your stereotypical horror movie scream queen develops into someone much more complicated through the story. I’m really looking forward to seeing where this goes as the plot continues to unfold.
Overall, Calling Darkness feels like horror-humor audiodrama gold. It brings in demons, guilt, alcohol, running from the past, acting, songs by Journey, pizza, horror, and humor all together into one messy, wonderful pot. If you like this kind of media, then Calling Darkness is an excellent take on the story with some complicated and strong leads just trying to survive. The latest episode released as of this posting, (episode 8: “It’s All Going to Hell”) was one of the strongest of the season and really demonstrates how good this story can be. You want to start at episode 1 so you can appreciate how wonderful that episode is. And by that point, you should probably just keep listening to see where it goes.
You can find them here: Calling Darkness
Episodes: 11 episodes in season 1
Length: Generally around 20-30 minutes, with some outliers on either end
I’ve listened to… All of Season 1, eagerly awaiting Season 2.
The Premise: Matthew is responsible for setting up a research station in Antarctica before the rest of the team arrives. Nothing bad has ever happened in an isolated Antarctic research station, right?
My Review: Isolation. Monsters. Memories. Penguins. Terror. What’s not to love? This is really the kind of horror I enjoy. It is psychological horror done very well, highlighting at once the freedom and madness inherent in such total isolation. The episodes do a great job of developing Matthew as a character through his job and duties, as well as through well placed flashbacks.
What I think this audiodrama does so well is utilize an unreliable narrator in a audio format very effectively. I listened to season 1. I’m not sure how much happened, how much was misinterpreted, and how much was completely impossible. That’s a hard feat to accomplish, because the story has at once convinced me that unimaginable things are possible, but also that this is still the real world and real world rules apply. So I’m still trying to reconcile those pieces.
The story also touches on mental illness in a very appropriate way. It balances well the severity and negative impact of such conditions with character strength, agency, and resilience. From the point of view of a therapist who sits across from people struggling with mental health concerns, it feels more realistic than most depictions. Mental illness can often be used as a crutch in creative fiction, but here it is one facet of a very complex, unique, and intriguing character.
At times I found it a little hard to follow because they relied on audio cues to help you follow, and I was just unable to place what was happening. The writing is usually kind enough to fill me in later, however, so I don’t have to stay befuddled for too long. The story also weaves a little between past and present, so it can be confusing when listening until the context is better developed. However, I think that actually serves to increase the uncertainty inherent in this story. It should be confusing at times, because the narrator is confused at times. I’d also say this story starts relatively slow, but makes up for it once it gets going. I was hooked after a handful of episodes because, even if everything seemed okay, you just know something else is going on. The ability to create that mystery and curiosity is really remarkable.
Overall, the story is well-crafted with a very interesting main character in a setting that has been used relatively frequently in horror literature (for it’s real world rarity and isolation), but manages to avoid some easy tropes. It oozes tension and dread, but often tricks me as the listener into feeling maybe everything is really okay…? But it’s probably not. At least, I don’t think it is. Right?
You can find them here: Station Blue
Happy New Year! Here’s a random podcast!
Episodes: Third Season just ended, bringing total episodes to 30. Unclear if there will be a season 4.
Length: Generally around 20-30 minutes
How I Found It: Honestly, I don’t remember. I remember reading about it somewhere as this dark, gruesome podcast. And so I tuned in.
I’ve listened to… All 30 episodes.
The Premise: Darkest Night is about a woman working in a laboratory that can extract memories of death from the deceased. The thing is, a lot of the memories they find are very disturbing and unusual. Is it just a problem with the technique twisting memories? Or is something else going on?
The Good: If you are looking for real horror for a grown up crowd, this has it. Their first two seasons hit on some more taboo topics, but it’s not the sort of thing that is going to traumatize you, either. Using binaural recording is great and makes things feel more realistic. I’ve jumped once or twice because I thought the footsteps were actually behind me. Definitely one best served by headphones and a dark room. The characters are fine, but not incredibly deep. They serve to move the plot along and provide a good base for the story, but I listen more for the unique stories rather than recurring characters.
The Bad: Season three has not been as strong, and it really did seem to kind of unravel a bit towards the end. I was not as impressed or intrigued as I have been in the past. I also think it lost some of the luster when they started focusing more on the corporate espionage pieces rather than the more “monster-of-the-week” format (midway through season 2, for me). I found myself wanting to skip over those frame pieces and get to the memories. Also, some of the ideas get…well…a little silly. Which is fine, normally. But they continue to treat it so seriously that it feels a bit off. A little more of a hat tip to the absurdity would be nice. Finally, the reliance on gore in some episodes feels amateur. But they make up for it with great psychological horror in others.
My Rating: Always up-to-date.
Definitely worth a listen as it is a good horror podcast that is truly horror. It’s above average, but can fall flat in some episodes. The inconsistency is frustrating, but the good episodes more than make up for it.
You should listen if…you need something to make you feel uneasy when you’re sitting at home on a dark and stormy night.
Want to know what this is? Why I’m doing it? What my arbitrary rating system means? Read this post here for all the not-so-juicy details.
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.
So, I’m studying up on social psychology for my licensing exam and got to read over the Milgram study again. Decided to use it for a story, and this is what happened. It’s a first draft, as usual, but I really enjoyed this one. Let me know what you think in the comments. As always, critiques, suggestions, positives, and negatives are all welcomed! Happy reading!
Toby sat alone in his monitoring booth, just as he had done day in and day out for the past seven and a half years. The booth was comfortable, but not spacious. He had his ergonomic chair, a desk to house his input terminals, a small refrigerator for his lunch, and the display panel. Unfortunately, there were no windows, which was why he made sure to take his lunch outside—at least when the weather permitted. It had been a long stretch of bitterly cold, breezy days, so he was resigned to staring at the three walls and display screen for the rest of the day.
The screen moved with the digital images of the shopping plaza patrons. He had been around when the system was just green, x-ray like images. Now they had at least created a few standard images that roughly assured him there were humans milling about there. They were all smiling people, dressed and styled ambiguously enough that he got nothing but a rough estimate of who they might be. There was one form for adults, one for children. Another for pets that sometimes appeared to stroll through the plaza. He liked to imagine the little groups of two adults and one or more children were a family enjoying a nice day out. In the evenings, he created stories for the two adults walking slowly through, imagining them on a first date.
Of course, that was more to simply make the time pass by more quickly. It was a good job, but painfully boring. Stare at the screen, watch for any aggressive or illegal activity, provide appropriate redirection, record the incident. Most days he redirected only minor infractions—littering, running in undesignated zones, loitering. Some days it was more significant. Once, he had to redirect a shoplifter, which was quite an experience. His hands grew clammy and his heart rate picked up just thinking about it.
There was a soft bell from the screen, and it highlighted one patron with a red aura. A pop-out replayed the last fifteen seconds of action, and Toby clearly saw the person take their napkin and drop it to the ground before continuing on. He reached out to the inputs, turning the dials down to their lowest setting—it was, after all, a minor infraction—and depressed the grey button down briefly. The image of the person on the screen briefly flickered to a red image with a frowning face, then returned to normal. The shock was delivered, the action redirected, and Toby watched the person walk over and retrieve their trash. He almost imagined the other glanced up angrily at the watching cameras, but there was of course no way to know that for sure.
Tedium is how he described his job usually. Most people abided by the rules, so there was rarely anything for him to do. The change was not necessarily welcome, because he did feel conflicted about causing pain even if it was for clearly outlined infractions; however, it also meant he had something to occupy the time. Toby dutifully recalled the recording in a portion of the screen, eyes jumping from the new activity to routine patrol, and began his report.
He attached the recorded images, watching as the generic adult figure faded and was replaced with a young man sitting at one of the plaza tables. He dropped his napkin and continued on, only to pause a minute later. Toby smiled. Sure enough, the man turned and offered an irritated glare at the camera as he picked up the discarded napkin. Toby recorded the voltage and duration of the redirection, associated it with the clip, and submitted it to Central Office for review and verification.
It was quiet as he opened his lunch box and unwrapped his sandwich. He sipped water from his bottle, letting his eyes close for a few brief moments. Dana was watching his screen while he was on break. She was always good about that. At least, he assumed she was. Her messages were always filled with exclamation points and smiley faces, so he got the feeling she was eager to help. He chewed his sandwich, thoughts wandering to Dana. He wondered what she looked like. What she brought for lunch. Where she was located.
He wondered where his plaza was located. Not in his city, that was for sure. Had he ever met someone who had walked across his screen? Neither of them would know if he had.
Had he ever met Dana?
There was a reminder tone as his thirty minute lunch ended. His screen flickered back to life, and he returned to his post. Hopefully spring would come soon and he would be able to go back outside to the park bench for lunch. He liked people watching—actual people watching—much more than being alone with his thoughts.
Time passed with minor infractions resulting in brief, routine redirection. He watched the screen and the clock with equal interest, waiting for the end of the day. It was nearly time to go home when the final redirection came in.
It was after school, so the number of children had dramatically increased. Most with parents, a few wandering alone. Teenagers, he told himself. He always kept a close eye on them, but they seemed docile today. On the other side of the screen, a region flashed as the chime sounded. He watched a child run across the plaza, leaving behind an adult figure. He looked down at the inputs, preparing the appropriate level for a child infraction, but his eyes bounced back up as there was another tone.
“Infraction limit exceeded. Increase redirection to level: 2,” read the note hovering over the still running child. Toby sighed. This was the part he hated. Begrudgingly, he increased the dial to 2 and depressed the button. There was a flicker over the screen as the child figure turned red and stopped running. The image stayed for a three seconds, then faded back to the normal, happy child image.
The adult figure bustled over, hands waving in a lecturing motion. A parent scolding with “I told you so,” he imagined. The recording later confirmed. It was a much younger child than he imagined, too young to have already exceeded infraction level 1.
He was late leaving the office, having gotten the paperwork completed a full fifteen minutes after the end of day tone. It always took him longer on redirections like that.
Thus passed the like of Toby, day in and day out. He watched his screen, ate his lunch, and administered redirection as required. The days eventually warmed again, and he enjoyed his sandwich on a bench beneath a tree where people walked about smilingly in the sunshine. He always made sure to dispose of his trash properly, and he was a moment late back to his post.
And then, the routine changed.
It was summer, a time when the plaza was even busier and the clientele more active. He always noticed a surge in redirections in the summer, which he attributed to kids out of school and the carefree attitude that permeated the season. The rules still applied, though, and he did his job to enforce them.
He had taken a later shift, an attempt to build up some vacation time so he could spend a few days relaxing on the beach. The plaza was now much quieter, having emptied of the majority of patrons. Instead, his screen now rotated between five locales, each more deserted than the last. Toby drank his coffee slowly, yawned, and did his best to stay focused even as his lids grew heavy.
He had drifted farther towards sleep than he intended when an urgent chime from the screen snapped him back to the moment. He saw his plaza before him, feeling a familiar swell of anxiety and protectiveness. There were a handful of people on the screen, all of them frozen in time as they faced the center. There was an adult emblazoned in red. He did not need to see the replay to know what was happening. The person had broken through the boundary of the closed shops, only to return moments later carrying something. A break-in.
His hand was shaking as he moved the dial, setting it up for a shoplift redirection. These hurt him each time, because they were automatically a level five. And they seemed to get longer each and every time.
Before he could press the button, there was another chime. He looked up, his eyes stumbling over the words on the screen in disbelief.
“Infraction limit exceeded. Increase redirection level to: 10.”
The bubble of anxiety swelling in his chest finally burst, drenching every part of him with its refuse. His hands were shaking over the dial, glancing down at the innocent numbers. There it was, sitting just beyond the nine, looking perfectly innocent in its malevolence. He had never done something like this. He had no idea what he was even about to do. But his hand shuddered as he tried to turn the knob.
The door to his office clicked open, and he released a breath he had unintentionally been holding. In walked a man in a suit, a thin smile plastered on his face. Toby stared. Not only had he never seen the man before, but no one had ever intruded on him during a shift.
“Mr. Georges,” said the man, his smile stretching just a bit, looking almost pained now.
Toby nodded. His hand was still hovering around the dial, and he could see the perpetrator moving on the screen from his peripheral vision.
“Quite a scene, eh? Go on, set the redirection and deliver it, just as instructed.”
Toby’s mouth opened and closed and his looked between the man and the screen. Eventually, his words caught up. “But, I’ve never—what if it—“
“Come on, Mr. Georges. They made their decision. We have rules here.” The man took a couple of confident strides forward, placing a hand gently on Toby’s shoulder. There was a gentle nudge, turning him back towards the screen. “Now, you do your part.” The smile widened, a gash etched across the face of a grinning corpse. The eyes were dead, Toby realized. Or not dead, but so very far away. “You have to keep order, Mr. Georges.”
The man reached across Toby, gently turning the dial from its position up to 10. He then waved at the console, indicating the smooth grey button. Toby’s hand trembled as it reached toward the button. He paused, and the hand on his shoulder tightened just enough to remind him it was there.
“Are you sure?” Toby asked, his fingers finally having found the familiar groove on the button.
“Our system doesn’t make mistakes, Mr. Georges,” said the man smoothly.
The button was down, and it took a moment for Toby to realize his fingers had pressed the button. The image on the screen changed, the person frozen in the moment. It was not a few seconds, and his eyes were glued to the screen, waiting for the normal adult image to return and assure him everything was going to be okay. It stretched on for seconds more, each one ripping itself from beats of Toby’s heart. And then it was over.
Only the image did not return to normal. It vanished completely.
The man in the suit patted Toby’s shoulder proudly. “Well done, Mr. Georges.” He turned smoothly on his heel and marched toward the door.
“Wha-What happened?” Toby blurted out, rising from his chair and taking a step toward the man.
“You provided the needed redirection,” responded the smiling man, only half turning to face him.
Toby looked back at the screen, now seeing new figures moving onto the screen. These figures were running, but had the emergency designation glowing around their images. They clustered around the spot the shoplifter had been moment before. The spot where the image disappeared.
“Are they okay?”
“They’ve been redirected,” said the man, hand on the door knob.
Toby felt the coffee surging in his gut. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“If you need a break, you have your fifteen minutes,” the man said, his hand on the door, “but we’ll expect you back at your post for your shift. You’ve got to file your report, Mr. Georges.”
“I can’t, I just—“ His head swiveled from the screen to the man, trying to piece together what was happening. The idea of watching the images in real time, of selecting his clip, of numbly filing the report. The room spun around him.
“You will, Mr. Georges.” He opened the door and had one foot out when he paused, breath catching briefly in his throat. When he turned back around, the smile was gone, replaced by a stern, concentrated expression. “And if you think you’re not on someone’s screen right now, Mr. Georges, you are quite wrong. Which is why I know you’ll be back to work after your fifteen minutes.”
The door closed behind him, and Toby sank into his chair, staring at the wall. He heard a chirp as his screen clicked off. Someone named Jordan was now watching his screen, not knowing what had just occurred. He stared at his hands while they trembled. What he wouldn’t give for tedium again.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.