Musings on the ‘writing method’

The writing ‘method’.

It’s a term I’ve heard bandied about by more than one writer, and the meaning seems to be both flexible and indeterminate. For some, writing begins with outlining the concept of a story, then fleshing it out with details like character names, descriptions of the local(s) the story takes place in, before finishing the process off by actually writing the story.

For others, it’s how they go about getting themselves situated before they can begin to write. This can range from where they like to work, to how they arrange their work-space, making sure they have access to their favorite ‘writing beverage’, even the type of music (or lack thereof) they have to have before they can begin.

Some writers even insist that for them to write, they must be in the right ‘mindset’. Be it making sure they have nothing but the story in their minds, or nothing at all on their minds so they can let their muse in, it’s all about mental preparation for these writers.

For me, the term’s definition isn’t fixed. Most of my writing is done on a laptop set up on the table I usually eat off of. Music is important, but that’s because if I don’t have something to listen to, my ears get bored and start inventing things for me to hear. What music I end up listening to is limited by what I have access to, and it can vary not only from day-to-day, but hour-to-hour. My mindset? I don’t have one. Some days the words scream to get out, clawing at the inside of my skull trying to escape. Other days, there aren’t any words waiting. On those days, trying to write is as useless as trying to force the Sun to shine on a cloudy day.

Boredom can be a goad to get me to writing, and has been since I first started writing. Long hours of mind-numbingly boring work leaves the mind begging for an escape. Imagining a world, or a person, who I’ve never encountered, then letting your brain spin out the different ‘what-if’ scenarios, is a way for my mind to escape. Somewhere along the line, a story grows out of those musings and decides it wants to be written. That’s when I’d sit down and begin typing.

People who’ve seen me at writer’s groups, either with my laptop or a legal pad, typing/scribbling away, if you were wondered what I was doing…now you know. The topic wasn’t nearly as interesting as I’d hoped, or a speaker has become so tedious I can’t bear to listen to them anymore. So I let my mind loose and see what it will bring me. Often, it’s pure dreck, and some of it never goes beyond the bored musings stage…but every once in a while, something really good raps on the inside of my skull and asks to be let out. Those are the moments that make it worthwhile.

So how about the rest of you writers? Do you have a special place you go to to write? A time of day you prefer? Music you can’t write without? A special mental place you need to get to before you can begin putting words on the screen/paper?

Yes, I am seriously looking for input/anecdotes/even humorous moments in your writing process that you’re willing to share. If you’ve got a special pair of socks you just have to have on, but you’re afraid to admit it, don’t worry, I can promise anonymity on request. But I do hope that other writers will share their experiences.

After all, they say misery loves company, so why shouldn’t us oddball writer types be willing to share our quirks? Knowing you’re not alone in your oddities is a liberating experience, so come on, share

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Death by a stream

Eubanks, Oregon must have been impressive in its day. My ride rolls past numerous old mansions, their columned porches and ornate bow windows marking them as the product of the Gilded Age. Here, on the western side of the Cascades, wealth came from timber. I didn’t need to research the town to know that, just looking at the uniform nature of the forests surround the town was more than enough to tell me how those early robber barons had become so rich.

“So, you hoping to get a room in one of the B&B’s?”

The question brings me back into the cab of the pickup truck, back to the local who’d given me a ride from Portland. I’d gotten my ride with Ed Prince through a ride-share app I’d installed on my phone. Just getting to Oregon from Colorado had taken every cent of my money, and for once I blessed being dead so I didn’t need to eat. I had feared I’d need to walk, or worse yet hitchhike, to Eubanks. Luck had been on my side, and Ed had been in Portland on business to give me my ride.

“I don’t know. Are they cheap?”

Ed gave me a sidelong smile. “Don’t you wish! I live here and I can’t afford a night in one of those places. Prices have gone through the roof since Eubanks was ‘discovered’ by the trendy types out of places like Portland and Seattle. I was in the bar where I bought my first beer last week, and I could have gotten dead-drunk back then for what they wanted for one beer now.” He gave his head a shake. “Oh well, I guess it’s better than the town whithering. If you don’t mind me asking, but you don’t look like the typical visitor, so what brings you to my little town?”

What they hell? “Me? I guess you could say I’m an undead detective who travels around hunting down violent spirits that kill people and eliminates them.”

I got the response I’d expected. Ed laughed. “So I guess being a what, a professional spirit killer, doesn’t pay too well?”

“Not a penny, actually. I usually panhandle to make ends meet, but I didn’t have time to get any done before I saw you were coming out here. Any places where an broke, undead guy can get a room?”

That got me another laugh. “Yeah, as a matter of fact, we do have one place that’s cheap, a hostel. Kids hiking in the mountains around here use it a lot. The city opened it a few years ago in an old lumber mill. I’ve never been in it, but I hear they did a real nice job on the conversion. Best of all, I hear you can stay there free if you’re willing to clean and cook.”

Now it was my turn to laugh. “Believe me, if I cooked, they’d throw my ass out in the street. But I’d be willing to clean if that will get me a bed for the night. Don’t suppose you could drop me at this hostel?”

We were in downtown Eubanks now, driving down a brick street lined with meticulously restored buildings filled with boutique shops. Ed pulled into an empty parking spot and put his truck into park. “Sorry, the hostel’s on the other side of town from where I’m going. You can get directions from any of the shop keepers. Me, I need to get home before my wife’s puts a contract out on me.”

I take the hint and get out. My duffel’s in the back, so I grab it before sticking my head in the window to ask one final question. “So, how far is where I’m looking to go from here?”

“Not far, maybe a mile, but I’d suggest you get a move on.” Ed gestures towards a mountain that looms above the downtown buildings. “We call that The Weatherman. Want to know why?”

“Okay, I’ll bite: why do you call that mountain The Weatherman?”

He gives me a smile. “We call it that because it’s the most reliable weather forecaster around. If you can see it, then it’s fixin’ to rain…and if you can’t see it, it’s already raining.”

I give a snort of laughter. “I walked into that one, didn’t I? Thanks for the lift, Ed, and the weather advice too.”

#

Ed had been a bit optimistic I the distance I had to walk. I got directions from the girl behind the counter of the chocolate shop, the third person I’d asked, and by when I got there, my phone cheerfully told me I’d walked 1.3 miles. Full credit to the city of Eubanks, what must have once been an eyesore had been turned into a cheery space for itinerant visitors. The broad outer walls were covered in graffiti murals, the quality of which varied from amateurish to excellent. Inside, much of the space was in use by the city government for storage, but the office space, break and changing rooms had undergone a profound remodeling. Utilitarian gray walls had given way to a brighter palate, and there was nothing of the gritty feel of a manufacturing facility to be seen. An old man with an anchor tattooed on his neck is sitting behind the counter inside the main entrance gave me a smile as I entered.

“Welcome to the Pacific Coast Hostel. I take it you’re looking for a place to stay?”

“You read my mind. That must be a handy talent to have.”

That earned me a laugh. “I bet it would be.” He looked me over with a more sober eye before continuing. “Are you in town for the Forest Festival?”

I’d seen signs announcing the community event as I’d walked through downtown. I guess a town built on logging would celebrate the forests and logging in general, but none of the events I’d seen advertised held any interest for me. “No, actually, I’m here to do some hiking. I’ve heard the Pacific Coast & Central Oregon Trail is a nice trail, so I thought I’d take some free time I have and walk as much of it as I can.”

That got me a much closer examination, and I could understand why. Dressed in a tee shirt, jeans and tennies, I wasn’t exactly ‘kitted out’ for hiking. I did my best to disarm the distrust I saw growing in the man’s eyes. “I’m just a day hiker, nothing too strenuous or hard-core. That’s part of the reason I chose this trail.”

The wariness receded from the man’s expression. “Then you’ve come for the right reason. The Trail is an easy walk, and safe as long as you pay attention to the weather and the time. I hope you enjoy it Mister…”

“Ishkowa, George Ishkowa. I hate to ask this, and I know the price of a room here is whatever guests can afford, but it took most of what little I had to get here. So I can’t pay, but if you’ll let me, I’d like to worked for my room and board. I can’t cook, but I’m pretty good at cleaning up and such.”

“George, I like your honesty, and I could always use a hand keeping this place clean. I hate to say it, but a lot of the kids who stay here don’t seem to know how to pick up after themselves, let alone clean up. So if you can help me get this place a bit more ship-shape, you’re welcome to stay as long as you want.” He held out his hand, and we shook on the arrangement. “My name’s Frank, Frank Oberweise, and I hope you enjoy your stay.”

Frank pulls a tablet out from under the counter, taps a couple of tabs on the screen, then hands it and a stylus to me. “Just sign on the dotted line and I’ll give you a locker key so you have a secure place to stow your stuff. We don’t serve lunch here, just breakfast and supper, so if you’re hungry, you’ll have to hike back to downtown to get something to eat. Supper’s usually around eighteen hundred hours…sorry, 6 PM, and breakfast is around 6 AM.”
I contemplate signing my name in the Kanji characters my parents insisted I learn, but knowing George looks too much like a couple of ‘smiley faces’ separated by another emoji that might be mistaken for something pornographic, I use English. I hand everything back to Frank, and as he hands me my locker key, I ask about his use of odd terms. “I’m fine, Frank, grabbed a bite to eat before I walked out here. Interesting way you told me the time…you ex-military?”

Frank smiled. “Busted. Yeah, I was in the Navy, a twenty year man. Then I came back here hoping to get a job with one of the mills…only to find they were all on their last legs. So I just rattled around, doing odd jobs and such, until the city decided to open this place. Being vet doesn’t mean as much as it used to, but it was enough to get me hired. So now I’ve got my pension and a little something on top of that for tending to this place. Not a bad gig, if you can get it.”

“I’ll take your word for it. I don’t think the military would have me, even if I volunteered.”

Frank begins leading me down a hall, but glances back to sweep his gaze over me again. “Why not? I hear the Army will take anyone with a pulse and the a voice to say ‘Take me!’”

I give him a smile, knowing that if I told him I was already dead, it wouldn’t go over well. “Bad heart. Not enough to keep me from walking,” I add as his eyes widen “but enough for me to not be considered fit for combat.”

“Well, you’ve got the right attitude, I’ll give you that. ‘Never give up ’til the game’s up!’, as the saying goes.” We stop in front of a row of lockers that wouldn’t have been out of place in my old high school’s gym. Frank gestures towards one. “Here’s your locker, number 23.” He points down the hall to an open door. “That’s the main sleeping area. It’s three-high bunk beds like we had on the Ike, the Dwight D. Eisenhower, without the chains to fold them up when they’re not in use. Most of them are in use, but we tell people who don’t want to give up their rack to tie something to it to let others know it’s occupied. So all you need to do is find one without any decoration, and you’re good.” He points to another, closed door at the end of the hall. “Men’s bathroom is behind that door,” he sweeps his hand towards a second closed door on the opposite side of the hall from the sleeping area. “Women’s bathroom is in there, and unless you’re trans, stay out. Trying to ‘get some’ here is frowned on. We’ve got small, private cubicles for folks who are married or couples down at the other end of the hall, in the old offices. But we’ve had too many guys decide that a woman on her own is ‘fair game’ to let it slide, so just remember to leave them alone, and it’s all golden.”

“Fair enough, Frank, and thanks for heads up. When do you usually clean? If I’m going to earn my keep, it’d be a good idea for me to know when I have to report for work.”

Frank nods. “Yeah, it would. Most folks are out the door before nine, unless the weather’s epically bad, so I usually start cleaning around ten. I’m usually done before noon, so the two of us should be able to get things squared away by eleven. If you’re willing to pack your lunch, that’d give you six, maybe seven hours on the trail.”

“Okay, Frank, I’ll be ready to pitch in tomorrow. For now, I think I’ll stow my stuff, find a bed, then I think I’ll take a quick hike to get a feel for the trail.”

“Sure thing. Have fun, and I’ll see you later.”

I watch Frank walk off before opening the locker. The inside isn’t spotless, but it’s far cleaner than any locker like this I’ve ever seen. I don’t need it, but I grab my rain coat out of my duffel before pulling a spare shoestring out to serve to mark whatever unclaimed bunk I can find. No surprise, all the bunks near the entrance sport some sort of marker, but I’m not interested in having a bunk near the exit. At the back of the room, I find an entire tower of bunks without any sort of marker on them. Why none of them has an occupant I neither know nor care. I whip my shoestring into a neat bow on the bottom bunk and head back towards the entrance. Frank isn’t there, but there is a stack of maps for the Trail on the counter. I take one and head out.

The reason I’m in Eubanks is because of the stories surrounding the Pacific Coast & Central Oregon Trail. It had started life as a robust shortline railroad, one stretching from the Pacific coast at Bandon to places like Eubanks. It’s life blood had been hauling finished lumber, and when public sentiment turned against clear-cut mountainsides, it had died along with the logging industry. I’d been drawn to it not just by reports of spirits, but by the sudden change in the behavior of those spirits.

Local folklore said that, on the final day the Pacific Coast & Central Oregon operated, an old hobo that had ridden the rails many times had committed suicide. He had done this perhaps the most symbolic of ways, by stepping in front of that last train as it hit the bottom of a steep grade on the edge of Eubanks. For years afterwards, locals said you could sometimes see the shadowy shape of a man in ragged clothing standing in the middle of the old tracks. When the state had decided to convert the abandoned right-of-way into a hiking trail, workers supposedly experienced odd events, ranging from cold chills in the middle of hot days to upended water coolers. After the trail opened, hikers reported seeing what became known as the Shadow Man near the spot where the hobo had taken his life, but beyond a vague shape seen from the corner of an eye, no further interactions were reported.

That changed four years ago. A female hiker descending the old grade saw something dark flit across the trail. But instead of an encounter with the now legendary Shadow Man, she faced a presence that shoved them violently back. When the hiker again tried to advance, a form appeared before her, not a vague shadow, but as what the hiker described it, more like a black hole cut into reality itself.

The encounter caused the hiker to flee back up the trail, where she met a party of hikers coming down. None of the group was willing to believe that she had experienced the events she described, but her fear was so obvious none of them could completely dismiss her either. Whether because of their numbers, or some other reason, the hikers saw nothing.

The event was almost forgotten when another female hiker had a similar, but far more violent encounter. Again, the woman was walking alone when a black shape slammed into her, knocking her to the ground. When she tried to get up, the shape enveloped her, restraining her from moving until a male hiker coming up the trail arrived. His description of the event was that he saw the woman on the ground, struggling inside what looked like a small bank of dark fog. When he approached, the fog dispersed, leaving the woman screaming on the ground.

After that, other strange events occurred, all of them involving single female hikers. They also involved only women who were headed towards Eubanks, never away from the town. But why they happened, I had no clue, and with only women encountering what I was sure was a spirit, no foreseeable way of finding out what was going on. But I knew I had to find a way to discover what was happening, before more violent, possibly even fatal, encounters occurred.

With nothing else to do, I make the short walk to the trail head and start trudging away from town. According to the map, the spot where everything happened is almost two miles away from the hostel, but I only make half of that before the first rain drop smacks down on my head. Being undead, I don’t need my raincoat, but I know if I’m not wearing it, I’ll have questions asked of me that I’d rather not have to answer, so on it goes. My destination comes into sight as what has become a light sprinkling of large drops turns into a true downpour.

The hill looms before me, its upper slope obscured by the rain. Water is already beginning to course down the trail, the innumerable rivulets of muddy water bearing everything from pine needles to pieces of trash. The spot where I am standing is actually the top of an old cement culvert, it’s low buttressed edges still exhibiting the neat work done by the railroad engineers who built it decades ago. What is perhaps a quiet stream now rushes in a growing torrent out of the hills to pass through it.

I can see why the hobo had chosen this spot to end his life. The trail rises straight before me, but the angle is such that a train could never stop in time to miss a man. Beyond that, there is also a peace here in this isolated place filled with the sound of flowing water. I lean on the cold concrete of the downhill side of the culvert, letting that peace flow into me as I watch the stream rush away below me.

I feel a chill in the air that has nothing to do with the rain, the sort of coldness I know comes only from the presence of another spirit. The feeling shifts, and just as sunlight changes where your body is warm as the Sun moves, I know that the spirit is no longer behind me, but moving around to my left. I turn my head and see a vague, dark shape, the rain falling through it, move to stand beside me.

“You’re the man who killed himself here, aren’t you?”

I see motion in the form, like a ghostly head nodding agreement.

“But you aren’t the one who’s been attacking those women, are you?”

Now the form grows more distinct, and I can see, like a sepia-toned image, an old man in ragged clothing. His face sports a scraggly beard, like he hasn’t shaved in days, and a frown is etched deep into his face as he shakes his head. His arm rises, and he points down the course of the stream. I look, but see nothing through the falling rain. “What’s there?”

The form starts to fade, and I reach out to grab its arm. My undead flesh makes it solid enough for me to hold the arm, and the Shadow Man with it, in place. The face changes, shock registers in the man’s eyes, then fear at what he must realize is no ordinary encounter. I lean towards him, intent on getting an answer.

“What were you trying to tell me? What’s down there?”

The Shadow Man tries to pull away, but he can no more escape me than a mortal man could someone holding their arm. The face become even more sharply defined, like he is coming more into the world with me, and out of his mouth, I hear a voice filled with fear reply.

“What are you?”

“I’m dead, like you. But unlike you, I seek to protect the living from harm.”

“But I never hurt nobody!”

I easy my grip on his arm, not quite letting go, but no longer the fixed grip of someone determined to hold on no matter what. “I know that, but something has been attacking women, right here.” The Shadow Man stops trying to get away from me, and I release him completely. “I need to know what it is, and if you know, why it’s doing what it is. I want to stop whatever it is before it hurts one of those women.”

“It ain’t tryin’ ta hurt them women, it’s tryin’ ta save’em! I saw it…I saw it and I didn’t believe it. He brought her down here, I think he was gonna dump her body in the creek, but she weren’t dead yet.” The old man looks away, visibly shaking at the memory of what he must have seen. “I saw him beat her head with a big ol’ branch, beat it til her brains was splashed all over the place. Then he cussed her, called her a dirty whore and things I never heard before, an shoved her in the creek. It’s her what’s goin’ after them women, an she scares me! She’s so bent on keepin’ them women from goin’ to that place that I’m a’feared she’s gonna hurt one of’em bad.”

There is a moment’s pause as the horror of what this lonely spirit must have witnessed sinks in, but the true terror of what he has seen is far from over.

“She ain’t the only one he brought out here. I seen him bring five others, but they was all dead already. He’s got one a them noisy things they drive around here ta work on the old line, and he always has’em trussed up on the back…like they was deer or somethin’!” Shadow Man fixes me with eyes that are haunted by something worse than death.”Mister, I don’t rightly know what ya are, but ya gotta stop him!”

“I’ll do what I can, but I need to know who it is…who’s killing these women?”

“I don’t know him, but he’s got a tattoo right here.” He raises his hand to point to his neck. “A tattoo o’ an anchor, like the sailors I knew who come back from the War had.”

Frank! So much for the friendly old man and not bothering the unaccompanied women. “I’ll do what I can. When was the last time you saw him out here?”

“Couple o’ months, maybe. He brought her out here on a day just like this, an dumped her in the creek like she was garbage. Why you wanta know?”

“Because I can either tell the police what he’s doing…or I can kill him myself. If there’s evidence, if the police can find a body, or even bones, then they might do arrest him. Do you know where this creek goes?”

“Sure, down ta the Coquille River, then ta the Pacific. Why?”

Damn, not promising. “Because if there was a dam or something else that might snag a body, the chances that someone would have found an unidentified body would go up. If it’s just fairly straightforward run down to the ocean, then we’re screwed.” I fix the man before me with my eyes. “What about the woman, the one who’s trying to stop others from being killed? Is she here all the time?”

“Yeah, but she don’t like it when men are around. Ever time they’re around, she stays away. I think she’s afraid o’em, not that I can blame her.”

I turn around slowly, addressing myself to the empty space around me. “If you’re here, I need your help. I want to stop Frank from killing any more women, but I need to know who you were. Help me, please.”

“I was Margaret Olesen.”

The voice seems to echo out of the culvert below me, like the young woman who’s voice I hear is trying to hide from me. I respect her desire to remain unseen. “Margaret, how did you meet Frank?”

A form, blacker than anything I have ever seen, appears before me, and the voice I hear has no fear in it, only anger.

Meet? All I did was show up at the hostel looking for a place to sleep. Do you think I came onto that creep, that I wanted that old pervert to try to rape me? Or maybe it was my fault he beat the shit out of me before shoving…things into my body because he couldn’t get it up?”

I hold up my hands, hoping to placate the angry spirit in front of me. “No, I don’t think any of those things. I’m just trying to get enough information so I can go to the police and present them with enough evidence to start an investigation.” Even as I say it, I know there’s no way to get the police to investigate. I’m just a visitor, while Frank’s a life-long resident. And how could I explain knowing that Frank used this remote site as the dumping ground for his victims? If I told the cops my information came from the spirit of one of the dead women ad the legendary Shadow Man, they’d either laugh me out the front door or have me committed for a mental evaluation. No, there was no way to bring Frank to justice for what he’d done…at least not to any justice through regular means.

I sense both of the spirits with me waiting, and I know there is only one answer I can give to them. “I promise, Frank will never kill another woman, I’ll stop no matter what I have to do. Do you believe me, Margaret?”

The black shape takes on form, becoming a scared young woman with long hair as dark as the form she had been, disheveled clothing and bruises around her neck. Her eyes lock onto mine and after a moment, she nods her head. “I believe you will do what you say. Save them, Undead Hunter.”

I had never thought of myself as anything but George Ishkowa until the spirit of a dead woman gave me that name, but I liked the label. “I will, Margaret, I swear.” The woman fades away as if the rain has washed her from the face of the Earth, and I turn to the other spirit. Shadow Man is still there, but he too has faded, now barely more than an afterimage of a person floating in space. “I never asked you who you were. Everyone calls you Shadow Man now, but you were once someone. People should know your name.”

The outline solidifies, the old face gives me a wane smile. “I was Paul Bower, an I served in the first War. After I got back…well, after ya been through the Meuse-Argonne, goin’ back ta a reg-u-lar life ain’t easy. When the market crashed, an my logging job disappear’t, I took ta the rails. Bein’ free ta go where ever the rails could take me, it were better’n anythin’. So I jest stuck with it. When there weren’t no more rails ta ride, I figured it’d be better ta go out that way. So here I am.” He swept his arm around. “It didn’t really hurt, dyin’ like that. An I’ve had a chance to see lots since then.” Paul stopped, and like Margaret, he fixed my eyes with his. “You keep yer promise, hear? Kill that sumbitch if that’s what it takes, but you keep yer damned promise. I don’t wanna see him drag a nother woman out here, ever.”

My Dad had been a Marine, and his stories of the Corp had included the heroics of the Marines at the Meuse-Argonne. I hold my hand out to Paul, and he takes. “I will, Marine. Semper Fi.”

I see his head cock to one side. “Yer too young ta be a Marine.”

“My Dad, he was a Marine, 2nd of the 5th, If I didn’t show my respect to a Marine, he’d find me and kick my ass, dead or not.”

Paul laughs, the first joyful noise I’ve heard from him. “Well, yer Dad raised a good kid, so I’m countin’ on ya ta take care a this.”

With that, his form faded away, leaving my hand hanging empty in mid-air, and my mind still unsure how I will solve the problem I face.

#

The hostel is packed when I arrive just before darkness falls. I don’t go looking for Frank, I just walk back to the bunk room, stopping to grab dry clothing from my locker so I can change. I drape my wet gear from the bunk above me, letting the water drip onto the floor beside me. The small drips are the last thing I hear as I bring silence into my mind, the closest thing I have to sleep in my undead state. When my mind swims back to the surface, the Sun is streaming in the windows. I rouse myself and find that it is late, nearly ten, and I am no closer to knowing what to do about Frank than I was when I’d laid down. I walk out to find him sitting behind his counter, looking comfortable in his surroundings. He must have seen me, as his head turns my way and he gives me a smile.

“I was wondering if you were going to get up, or if I’d have to come kick you out of your bunk. What happened to all that talk about wanting to earn your bed here?”

He’s so cheery a part of me has trouble believing he’s a serial killer. “Sorry, I guess I slept a lot longer than I’d thought I would, but I’m ready to work now.”

“You sure? I can wait a bit before I start if you want to grab a bowl of cereal or something.”

“No, I’m fine. Let’s get things cleaned up and squared away.”

Frank comes out from behind the counter and leads me down the corridor I hadn’t been down to a blank double door opposite a broad open space that must be the eating area. They open to reveal a small, cramped room stuffed with cleaning supplies and spare linens. Frank motions towards a vacuum cleaner. “Why don’t you take that to the bunk room and start cleaning up. I’ll bring down a cart with fresh sheets and pillow cases as soon as I can get them loaded.”

I do as I’m told, and have the first aisle between the towers of bed cleaned before Frank arrives, a low cart loaded with sheet in front of him and a canvas hamper on rollers behind him. He set about stripping bunks and I know I have to confront him, now, while we’re alone. I stop cleaning and turn the vacuum off. In the sudden silence, I ask Frank about Margaret.

“Hey, Frank, what do you know about Margaret Olesen?”

He almost suppresses his reaction, but I catch the hesitation as he flicks a sheet out before beginning to tuck it in.

“Who?”

“You don’t have to lie, Frank, I know what you did.”

Franks stops and slowly stands up. “You know what?” He looks me up and down, a man easily a head taller than me, and I can almost hear the contempt in his expression. He turns back and continues working his way around the mattress, making every corner the same ‘hospital corner’ my military-trained father had taught me.

“I know you killed her after you raped her. You beat her to death beside the creek, then you threw her body in the water and let it wash away the evidence of your crime.” Frank freezes, and I continue. “I also know you’ve killed at least five other young women, and dumped their bodies at the same spot.” He turns, straightening as he does so, and I press on. “Were there others, Frank? And why did you do it? Why did you have to kill them?”

Perhaps he thought he could overpower me in a rush, because Frank crosses the space between us in a handful of quick strides, and his hand wrap around my throat as he begins to shout at me.

“Why? Why not! Just more stupid sluts, walking around almost advertising that they want to get fucked. Then a real man approaches them, and suddenly they’re Miss Chastity.”

I can feel Frank’s fingers digging into my neck, but when I don’t struggle, or show any sign of folding, I see the triumph in his face change to confusion. That’s when I use the self-defense training Dad gave me, bringing my arms up between Frank’s, breaking his grip. He stares at me, gasping from his effort to strangle me.

“How…how are you not down? Why aren’t you unconscious?”

“Do you remember me asking you about Margaret Olesen? I know what you did to her because she told me.” Frank’s eyes open wide, and he begins to back away from me. “You have to realize something, Frank: you can’t kill someone who’s already dead…like me.”

He turns to run, but I land a kick to the back of his knee that drops him. As he struggles to get back on his feet, I grab the cord of the vacuum, loop it around his neck, and pull it tight. Frank claws at the cord, but he can’t get his fingers between it and his neck. I pull tighter, and his face turns a dark, almost purple shade. As his efforts become more frantic, I lean down next to his ear to whisper the last thing he will ever hear in his ear.

“I swore I’d never let another human be killed by an evil spirit, but you’re not human, Frank. I can’t tell the cops how I know what I know about you, but I can make sure you never kill another innocent woman.” Frank begins to beat his hands on the floor and thrash about, but it’s an effort in vain. His movements become less coordinated, then slowly subside. I keep the cord tight around his neck until I smell his bowels empty, then I let him drop. I retrieve my clothing from where it had hung, take it out and stuff it into my duffel. I have a few hours to get out of town, and I can think of no better way to do so than to walk down the trail where I’d met the victim of Frank Oberweise. Down the trail, to Bandon and the Pacific beyond, to my next task.

Play dead

It’s 3:30 in the morning as the Trailways bus rumbles into Redmond, Colorado, and the town has that deserted feeling only a small town can have at that hour. No one walks the streets, and Veteran’s Park is deserted as we pass it. That’s where everything started, but it’s not where it ended.

My search of the Internet came back with several stories, but the first one happened in the dark and empty park. Two women, both young mothers, sat down to chat on a sunny Spring day while their toddlers played nearby. All the stories agreed that the conversation was brief, hardly more than a few minutes, but when they again looked towards their children, only one of them was still present. Frantic searches, first by the mothers, then by the police, turned up nothing. The only clue was the child that had been left behind. It clung to it’s mother with the desperation of a child who’d seen something so terrifying it couldn’t vocalize the experience.

That happened three years ago, and it wasn’t the last such disappearance. Within weeks, a second child vanished from the same playground. Then a third. When a fourth child went missing, security cameras were installed, but they didn’t save the fifth child. The cameras dutifully recorded the children at play, their happy faces shining under the mid-summer Sun, then as one, they ceased to work. Every feed went blank, and stayed that way for five minutes. When they returned to work, another child was gone, vanished so completely the ground might have opened and swallowed it.

After that, families quit visiting Veteran’s Park. The playground stood deserted, and children no longer played war games around the World War 2 era artillery piece. For a while, nothing happened. Months passed, and no children disappeared. Then, on a late Fall day, a child vanished from the playground of Corporal Lance Oppermann Memorial Park. It was the only other park in Redmond, named after a young native who had given his life to safe his friends in Vietnam. But for all the sacrifice of that young man, there was no protection for an innocent child, Again, searches by the police and concerned citizens turned up nothing, and no one had seen a stranger in or near the park before the disappearance.

People deserted the city parks, keeping their children close when they weren’t in school, but it made no difference. Young children continued to disappear, the only difference now was that they vanished all over town. Out of a momentarily ignored shopping cart in the local grocery store. A walk to the bathroom at preschool that never ended. Anywhere children were left alone, even for the briefest time, they vanished.

When I’d read the first story, I’d suspected that some supernatural entity was involved. By the time I’d finished my research, I was sure of it. So here I was, climbing off a bus in the predawn darkness wondering what I was about to face. Things weren’t as bad as they sometimes were. Being undead, I can’t exactly hold a regular job, so money can be a problem. I hate panhandling, mainly because even a practitioner as good as me has a hard time making money in small towns. The bet I’d won at a street race up in Preston, Idaho, a truly small burg, had given me an unexpected cushion on the financial front. Redmond was a metropolis compared it, so I hoped to raise a little money here before moving on.

One thing I bless, standing there feeling self-conscious for being the only passenger to get off, was the fact that Redmond had an IHOP.

Strange, isn’t it, that someone who isn’t alive could savor something as simple as a stack of fresh pancakes smothered in maple syrup, but I did. Sensations like taste and touch were not as acute as they had been when I was alive, but the act of forking a slice off that stack into my mouth brought back memories that more than filled in the blanks. Beside me, the only other occupants were a pair of men who’s orange safety spoke of a job on the highway or the railway. They sat in their booth, talking quietly and glancing at their phones between sips of coffee and mouthfuls of danish. That left me, the only person sitting at the counter, to occupy the manager. His shirt tag read “Rockie”, but he had nothing of stony silence about him.

“So, what brings a young guy like you to a town like this?”

Part of me doesn’t want to talk, but I know silence will draw more attention than banal chatter, so I decide to answer. “I’m just in town for a few days, doing a bit of research.”

“Research? What, are you one of those people who travel around checking out their ancestry?”

It would be easy to tell this man what he wanted to hear, but I didn’t feel like lying to him. “No, I’m researching the mystery of the children who have gone missing here.”

The look of polite attention vanished from Rockie’s face as his eyes fixed on mine. “Why are you interested in that? Are you one of those sick fucks who gets their kicks off of seeing other people suffer?”

I hold up my hands. “No, quite the opposite. I’m actually hoping that if I can figure out how this is happening, then it can be stopped.”

That got me a derisive snot. “What are you going to do if you figure out what’s happening, go to the local cops? Those worthless clowns have had three years to find out who’s doing this, but have they? Hell, doing some real police work might take them away from their goddamn donuts and coffee. Can’t have that now, can we?”

I could understand his cynicism. Human couldn’t imagine that some non-human entity might be stalking them. So they explained it away by blaming the police, thinking them incompetent…or worse, involved. Paranoia often came to the fore in situations like this, and while Rockie didn’t voice such opinions, I was sure there were those that did. “Maybe they’re just facing someone who really smart, who knows how to cover their tracks.”

“Are you saying they haven’t found any evidence in twenty-odd cases? Not one clue, not a shred of DNA left behind that shouldn’t be there, nothing?”

“Rockie, I just got here, so I don’t know what’s going on. I just heard about it from some people I know and decided to come out here to see if I could figure out what’s happening. Maybe getting a fresh set of eyes on the problem will help stir things up?”

The eyes fixed on me narrowed. “Yeah, that’s another thing. You say your not one of those sick ‘crime tourists’ people whisper about, so what brought you here? None of the families involved is rich enough to pay you a reward, even if you can figure out what’s happening. So why are you here?”

“I guess you could say I’m here because someone I knew disappeared mysteriously. They ended up dead, and I couldn’t do anything to help them, so maybe I’m hoping if I can save someone’s kid, they won’t have to go through what I did.” It wasn’t entirely the truth, but I couldn’t exactly tell him the truth that the person I knew who’d died was me.

Rockie’s face, his entire posture, relaxed. “I don’t know that it’s going to help you with your problem, but if you can help any of the families, that’d be good.” He stepped back and crossed his arms. “It’d help me…one of my nephews was among the first children to go missing. It’s been nearly three years now, and my sister still cries for the boy she lost. So any help I can give, you ask and you got it.”

A local source, someone familiar with the town, would be invaluable. “Well, if you can tell me what was happening around that time, it’d give me a place to start. That, and a refill on this cup.” I shove my coffee cup towards Rockie, and as he fills it, he begins to flesh out the history of Redmond.

“Don’t ge me wrong, I love this town, but Redmond isn’t paradise. It was founded because of a coal seam protruding from a bluff out beyond the edge of town. Its had a pretty hardscrabble history. Coal mining kept the town’s economy booming until a Depression-ear strike closed the mine. The town managed to hang on, mainly because of railroad jobs from the Denver & Rio Grande line that served other mines. Then coal production tanked in the late 1990’s, and the line became little more than a branch line. That’s when Redmond began a to slide into economic stagnation.”

Rockie stopped talking to tend to a pair of new customers, then returned to take up his narrative. “It was around then that people started to get strange. The bars began staying open 24/7, and drugs started to become a serious problem. People who could moved away, but as the population got smaller, the social pressures rose. Around 2010, a bunch of people committed suicide. More than once, the father or mother wouldn’t stop with taking their own life, they’d kill their whole family.” A grim smile shaped Rockie’s lips as he shook his head. “The disappearances brought those ‘family killer’ suicides to an end, so I guess they’re almost a good thing. Hell of a price to pay though, ain’t it?”

“It is. Are you sure that the instances of people killing their families ended with the start of the disappearances?”

Rockie waved to a group of four middle-aged women entering the IHOP, probably fresh from dropping their kids off at school from their appearance. After taking them coffee, he came back looking reflective. “It wasn’t exactly at the same time. I mean those suicides didn’t happen on a schedule or anything. It was maybe a month or two after the last one I remember that the first kid disappeared. Why?”

Even I didn’t know why I thought there might be a connection between the two events, but something in the back of my head was shouting that they were. “Maybe it’s just a coincidence, I don’t know, but it strikes me as odd. Guess it’s time for me to do some more research. Does Redmond have a local newspaper?”

Rockie gave me a smile. “Going to go ‘old school’, huh? Hard as it is to believe, we’re the county seat, and the biggest town left in this corner of Colorado. We’ve also got a library, if you’re looking to go through back issues of the Redmond Gazette. All you have to do is wait…” he glanced over his shoulder before giving me a bigger smile, “another three and a half hours. Want another refill on that coffee?”

“Nope, I’m good. Matter of fact, I was thinking of taking a walk around town, try to get a feel for the place. Besides,” The bell above the entrance rang as another group of mothers came in to take a table next to the earlier group. “I think you’re going to be too busy to keep talking to me. Thanks for the help, Rockie. Time for me to get out of your hair.”

“I meant what I said earlier, you need any help, let me know. I hope you can figure out what the hell’s going on here…”

Rockie held out his hand, and I took it. “Name’s George, and if I run into any trouble or if I find anything out, I promise to let you know.”

“I appreciate that, George. Maybe you should sit here a while longer, you’re hands as cold as ice.”

I mentally kick myself for shaking this man’s hand, for forgetting that I’m dead and anyone who touches me will notice how cold my flesh is. I wave the invitation away as I rise to l been leave. “Not to worry, Rockie, I’ve been like that all my life. Talk to you later.” I put a twenty down next to my bill, leaving the change for a well-earned tip, and head out the door.

The Sun is up now, and traffic has picked up, both cars and people. Just down the street, an imposing pile of masonry looms over the other buildings of downtown, the dome that tops it giving away its government function. It dawns on me that I should have asked my informant where the library is, but with three hours to burn before it opens, I know I’ll have more than enough time to find it on my own. I head down Main Street, otherwise known as Colorado State Route 59, towards the courthouse. The buildings I pass reflect the town’s prosperous past in their ornate brick facades and broad expanses of glass. But now, many of them sit empty, their windows exhibiting not clothing or appliances, but faded notices hoping to entice foolish people into renting them. One long store front surprises me, being filled not with empty hope but books. It had once been several separate stores, but now, the former separate entrances are closed, or adapted to serve as fire exits, and doorways have been cut through walls to form a single, unified building. The main entrance proudly proclaims this is the Redmond Public Library. A smile creases my face and I shake my head. “I guess sometimes dumb luck really does happen.” I mutter to myself as I check the opening time before continuing my stroll.

I decided to occupy my free time by hiking down to Veteran’s Park. I want to get a feel for the place where everything began. In the light of day, the park was no more sinister than any other park early in the morning. The accumulated rust on the swing chains the only thing that gave away how long it had been since children had played there. The park was surrounded by older neighborhoods, houses with mature trees in their broad yards and all the signs of families residing in them. What in this calm, almost pastoral scene could have triggered the terror that now afflicted this town?

Idle speculation won’t solve my problem, so I retraced my path to the library. There is still time before it opens, and a pair of benches flanking the entrance look like an excellent place to watch this town flow past me, so I take a seat to take in the ebb and flow of life in Redmond. Most of the traffic I see on the street is passing through, the speed of the cars and trucks making it clear that this is just another town to get through, not a place the occupants want to stop. The few pedestrians are older men and women, some shuffling along, others upright and eyes forward. Which category would I have fallen into if I’d lived long enough to grow old? Would my desire to keep moving have kept me striding confidently along, or would I have become one of the unsteady one, struggling to put one foot in front of the other.

One person’s steps held nothing of uncertainty. Her white hair pulled back in a long ponytail, and a keyring flashing in her hand, she advanced on the entrance to the library like someone on a mission. Her eyes catch mine, and she favors me with a brilliant smile. “Have you waiting for the library to open? I’ll have it open in a few minutes. You can stay out here and enjoy the weather until I get the lights on, or if you want, you can come in and wait by the front desk.”

Having a mission of my own, I rise. “If it’s alright with you, I’ll come inside miss. I have some research I want to do, and no idea how long it’s going to take to find the information I’m looking for.”

She stops, key in the lock but not yet turned, to glance over her shoulder. “Research? What are you looking into that can’t be found online?”

Not wanting to reveal that I might be researching a supernatural being, I give her the most convincing lie I can. “Newspaper stories, miss. I hear that there’s a newspaper in town, but when I was researching my story, I never found any reference to it.”

She unlocks the door and pulls the key out before turning. “Oh, that’s easy. The Gazette‘s too small to have a web site. They’re only a twice-weekly publication now, and they don’t even have a printing press any more. They get their issues run off in Pueblo by the Chieftain‘s printing plant. One of my part-time assistants has been scanning back issues, but if you’re looking for something newer than a year ago, you’ll have to dig through our impromptu ‘morgue’.”

She pushed through the door, and I follow her inside. She ducks behind the counter and steps through a door set into the wall behind it. The work that turned this space into a library included opened the ceiling to its original pressed tin, its frilly ornateness on display as the light begin to come on. My hostess comes back out and I give her a smile. “Well, you don’t have to worry about me disturbing your newspaper collection. What I want to look into happened more than a year ago, so how can I access the scanned material? I’ll admit I never thought to look at the library’s web page, so if you can give me any tips where to look, I’d appreciate it.”

She looks me over before answering. “Were you planning on using your phone, or were you going to go home and using a computer? I’m asking because, frankly, our web site isn’t exactly ‘phone friendly’. I’ve been trying to raise the money to get the page recoded so it will be easier for folks to view the site with their phones, but it’s not easy to justify spending money for things like that when keeping the lights and water on can be a struggle.”

I give her a rueful smile as I scratch my head. “You got me, I was planning on using my phone…and I don’t have a computer with me. Guess I’m outta luck.”

“No, you’re not, you can just use our computers. Normally they’re for people with library privileges, but we’re usually not that busy this time of the day. If you want to do that, they’re just around the corner. We leave them on 24/7, so all you have to do is move the mouse and they should open up to our web page. Just click on the ‘Periodicals’ button and the first thing on the list is back issues of the Gazette. If you have any problems, just come to the front desk. I’ll be there until my assistant comes in at noon sorting the stuff that was dropped off overnight.”

‘Around the corner’ takes me through one of the openings cut in a wall that the front counter extends through. The space has a wrap-around counter, broken at the front by one of the former store entrances, that covers three sides of what is now a large alcove. Desk chairs set in front of dark flat screens, with a varied crop of desktop machine perched beside them. I pick one at random, pulling out my phone and ear buds before sitting down. The music app is in ‘shuffle’ mode, and I’m pleasantly surprised to hear Sam Cook’s mellow voice crooning “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” in my ears. I can’t stop myself from smiling. “Keep me going, Sam, keep me going.” I whisper as the monitor comes to life and I begin my search.

Small town newspapers have their own standards about what to headline, and how they word those headlines. I spent most of the morning scanning through back issues, and actually looked at the piece I wanted twice before I understood what it was. The story would have been ‘under the fold’ when it was originally published, and the title “Young mother takes own life” gave no hint that it might hold the key to my search.

The story itself could not have been sadder: a young woman had lost her job and was about to be evicted. Facing a life of either living in a car, or worse, on the streets, she had chosen to kill herself. A relative had gone to her apartment to offer a place to live, only to find Melody Danvers missing. She had left a suicide note, but before the police arrived at Veteran’s Park, she had died from an overdose of illegally obtained prescription pain killers. What the title did not make clear was the fact that Melody’s five year old son, Larry, had survived her attempt to kill him. He was found sitting, unconscious, in a swing with his mother lying on the ground behind him. A brief note in another article about his release from hospital was all that I could learn about his fate.

I lean back and contemplate the facts. A mother so determined to hold onto what she thought a ‘normal’ life with her child that she would kill the child with her rather than force it to live without her. Could she, after death, have so longed for the child that hadn’t died with her that she’d come back searching for it? The park had been the last place she remembered being with her child. Perhaps when she couldn’t find her child, she had taken other children to replace it. Then, when children stopped going to that park, she had moved where children were. But where would she have taken them?

An five-sentence obituary gave me a clue. It turned out that Redmond is a deeply religious community, and suicide was a sin none of the congregations controlling almost all of the local cemeteries could ignore. But from its earliest days, Redmond had had its destitute, its dispossessed and forgotten. Melody had joined them in the town’s ‘Potter’s Field’, the final resting place for all such people. Could she be taking them where she resided? There was only one way to find out.

My new friend the librarian talking to an older man, trying to help him figure out what book would be the best source for advice on writing his memoirs, so I wait for them to finish. They leave, returning a few minutes later with the rather aptly title book “How to Write your Memoirs” Miss Librarian smiles her way through taking care of checking the book out, adding an encouragement as the older man turns to leave. “Good luck with your book, I look forward to reading it.” As he goes out the door, she turns to me. “Did you find what you were looking for?”

I step forward, and unsure how she will react to my question, hang my head. “I think so, but I also found out I need some information I couldn’t find in the newspaper. Where’s ‘Potter’s Field’ located?”

I raise my face and see that my question has had the effect I’d feared it would. The former friendly smile has vanished, replaced by a severe frown and wary eyes.

“Why do you need to find that place?”

I opt for a strategic lie. “Because I’m looking for the final resting place of a distant cousin of mine, Melody Danvers. My folks told me what happened, but I wanted to know more about her. I had to travel through the region, so I thought I’d stop in Redmond for a day and pay my respects, maybe find out what happened to her son. No one told us what became of him, and the newspaper just says he survived, which I knew already. Do you know anything about what happened to him?”

The wariness left the librarian’s eyes, and the frown became one of sadness, not caution. “I’m sorry for your loss. Larry was taken in by Melody’s brother-in-law, and that he moved his family to Denver the year after she…after she passed. So if you were hoping to meet him, you’re in the wrong place. As far as Potter’s Field, it’s called Redmond Cemetery now, not that many people get buried there. It’s off Main Street just this side of the South edge of town. I’m sorry, but most of the graves don’t have headstones, so finding Melody’s grave won’t be easy. There used to be a caretaker, but I’m not sure anyone tends to that place anymore, what with the way it’s always waist-high weeds every Summer. So I’m not sure who could tell you where to look.”

I hold out my hand, and she shakes it. “Thanks for the information, it’s more than anyone in my branch of the family knew. If I can just see where she’s at, even if I can’t stand by her final resting spot, it’ll mean a lot. I appreciate you help Miss…”

The friendly smile returns, welcome as sunshine on a cloudy day. “Misses, actually. Mrs. Doneta McCarthy, and I’m glad I could help. If you have any other questions, or if you feel like talking about what you find, I’m here every day. Good luck.”

It was well after noon when I emerged and set about walking to my next destination. The sunny morning skies had given way to a low overcast, the clouds dark with the promise of rain. I start walking, and shortly after I leave downtown, the promise of rain is fulfilled. There is no hint that the storm is coming beyond the sudden burst of cold air that buffets me moments before curtains of rain roll in to obscure everything around me. I feel the rain drops hammering my skin as my clothing goes from dry to soaked, but there is no real discomfort to my undead body, only annoyance at the squelching feel of my feet as I trudge along.

The houses are beginning to grow scarce when I spot the broad weed-choked space inside a simple iron fence. Not a single standing stone breaks the scene, and the only indication I have found my destination is a pair of cast concrete posts framing a closed gate bearing the legend ‘Redmond Cemetery’. A simple latch holds it in place, there being no need to secure such a forgotten place, and I lift it in hopes of letting myself in. The latch moves, but the gate remains stubbornly fixed in place, forcing me to climb over it to enter.

Once, there must have been a service road that ran through this desolate space, but now the only sign of it is slight depression and the fact that the weeds grow somewhat less riotous. As I push through them, the screen of pouring rain thins enough to reveal a small structure. Fittingly for such a place, it has a throughly bedraggled look about it. The roof is distinctly swayback in the center, both of the windows I can see lack any glass, and the siding has begun to fall away from the plywood sheathing underneath it. I can also see a pair of doors, one intended to open for vehicles, but the other sized for human frames. I make for the latter, and am unsurprised to find it ajar.

Out of that slim crack pours a stench no words could describe, but I know what I will find when I push it open. I press my hand against the door, and when it refuses to move, I shoulder it slowly open. Within, I find even my worst imaginations do no justice to the scene before me. A child, little more than time-dried skin stretched taut over bone, lies in the fading light cast by the door. Nearby, a newer body, torso bloated with decay, lies just beyond it. I see skulls, bones, fragments of clothing everywhere.

In the center of it all, there is a dark shape. Once it might have been a woman, but now it is nightmare. The head that turns towards me is a thing that would haunt a mortal mind. The mouth is a gaping maul, a hole with nothing human in its form. The nose is gone, a slit between two eyes that glow like the fires of hell itself the only trace that it had once existed. The body beneath it turns towards me, not with the movement of a human, but like a thing spinning on a turntable. I hear a disembodied, its sound fills that dark space, address me.

“Where is my child?”

“He is gone, Melody. He survived when you tried to kill him, and your family took him away to live with them. You won’t find him no matter how much you search.”

The dark form comes at me in a rush, like smoke driven before a strong wind. It surrounds me, and I feel it pressing in upon me from every side. “Give me my child back!” it shouts from everywhere.

“I can’t, and I wouldn’t if I could. Let your boy live his life, Melody, let the children of this town live their lives.”

“No! They took my child from me, so I’ll take their children from them!”

There will be no reasoning with this spirit. I raise my arms through the surrounding darkness, and for the first time, I feel fear.

“How are you able to move? Those children couldn’t move when I took them. They couldn’t cry out as I took the life from them. How are you able to move?”

“Because I’m like you, Melody, but my desire for vengeance was only on the creature that killed me. I didn’t want everyone to suffer as I had, and I won’t let you make another family suffer.”

My hands grope through the dark form and find a spot more solid. I close my fingers about it and squeeze. The cloud-like form that had surrounded me shrinks back to the shape I had seen when I’d entered the building, but now the face is more human. I see what Melody must have once been, a young woman with terrified eyes under dark brown bangs, her lips twisting as she struggles to free herself from my grasp.

“No, I can’t die without my child, I can’t leave my Larry to face it without me.”

There is none of the terrible in the voice now. It is a desperate woman, a spirit hoping to hang onto what existence it has. I can’t let it stay. My fingers tighten and begin to sink into the now almost flesh-like form. Melody raises her hands, trying to pry mine away from the neck they now surround. I hear a final plea, soft, almost gasping.

“Please, please let me find my child!”
“I can’t, Melody, because you never will. Your boy has a life to live, let him have it. Go now, leave this place and this town in peace.”

The form morphs again, becoming the all-encompassing cloud it had been, but I can still feel the pressure of the neck my fingers surround. I tighten my grip one final time, the shape whips about me like a black sail flapping in a hurricane wind, then it stills before beginning to dissipate. But as it does, from all around me, I see small shape emerge from the shadows. Most are just shadows themselves, little more than a shifting darkness in that shadow-filled space. But a few have form, almost as if they were children emerging from hiding. One steps forward, becoming more solid as it does. I see a little girl, her clothing dirty and on her face is haggard. She looks about, then up at me. There is a whisper, the sound of a lost soul hoping for hope after a disaster.

“Can we go home now, mister?”

“No, but you can leave. You’re dead, all of you. Go where the light is, child, all of you. Your families will know what has happened to you, I promise. Go in peace. The thing that did this to you is gone, no one else will suffer as you have.”

There is the murmur of children’s voices, and the forms begin to vanish. Finally, only the little girl remains. She fixes me with her eyes, ancient eyes in a face that couldn’t be more than five years old. “You promise to tell my mommy? Promise to tell her I didn’t run away?”
“I will, child. I’ll tell all your parents you didn’t run away.”

The eyes soften, become those of a little girl again as she smiles at me. Her form begins to fade, and as it become nothing more than an after-image, a child’s voice echoes in my head.

“Thank you.”

I pull out my phone and dial 911 before laying it in the middle of the charnel house scene. I’ll need another one, but there are plenty of places to get cheap phones. The rain picks up again as I exit, and I climb over the back fence before making my way the field behind. The sirens tell me the Redmond police are coming to discover something they will never understand. I am tempted to to return to the IHOP, to tell Rockie that his nephew will be coming home soon, but there is no way I could explain to him what happened in that terrible space. The police will tell his sister, and then he will know what happened. For me, it’s time to see when the next bus arrives so I can move o