The Screaming Tree

It wasn’t that Ciaran and Ciara O’Breoghan were naughty children. No, there were many children who behaved naughtily among the families that made up the The O’Breoghan’s household. What made Ciaran and Ciara truly stand out was the fact that they enjoyed being naughty.

The scarlet-haired twins had heard, again and again, that they should behave ‘properly’. There father, their mother, their tutors and even their servants would remind them that they were The Future Of The Clan O’Breoghan. Ciaran was told how he would one day take his father’s place as chieftain of the clan. Ciara had heard how she would one day marry the son of one of the neighboring clan’s chieftain.

And both of them hated being told what they would do.

At ten years of age, both of them both of them wanted nothing to do with the boring necessities of becoming the people their parents wanted them to be Yet no matter how much they protested, no matter how they tried to avoid it, they’d been told that as the only surviving children of Ruari O’Breoghan, what they wanted was less important than what their clan needed.

So they had settled on gone out of their way to be annoying. In hopes that their bad behavior would cause their parents to reconsider, they made a game of finding new ways to try the patience of their servants. They tormented one tutor after another until they gave up. And as often as they could, they offended guests to their father’s hall.

Of all their acts, this caused their parents the most trouble. In Irish society, the guests of a chieftain were honored before everyone else in the household but the chieftain themselves. So the twins took great pleasure in offering offense to any and all people who guested in Ruari O’Breoghan’s hall.

Tonight’s guest was a traveling shanachie. Both twins loved the stories brought by shanachies, and their resolve to cause trouble wavered when they first heard such an important person would be visiting. Then they saw their father’s guest. He looked nothing like the other shanachies who’d visited. His robes were frayed and filthy, and the skin of his face hung in pale folds around the pale eyes of a blind man. He seemed to hang from the pair of attendants who supported him, not walk proudly to face their father as the other shanachies had. But when he spoke, in a high, squeaky voice, they found it hard to hold in the gale of laughter that arose in both of them.

“Ruari O’Breoghan, son of Rian O’Breoghan, who was son of Niall O’Breoghan, who’s father bore your name, I thank you for your gracious hospitality. May your house and clan know peace and plenty through all the years.”

Both children watched in stunned amazement as their father rose from his seat and embraced the filthy old man. “Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, son of Daithi Mac Giolla Bháin, who’s fame is know across Ireland, Scotland and even among the English, I bid you welcome. It has been far too long since you have graced this hall. I was but a boy of nine when you visited last, and I hope I may show you as much honor as my father did.”

Taking the old man’s arm over his shoulder, father helped him to a seat servants brought and set beside the fire. There the two of them fell to talking of that long ago visit, a subject neither child cared to hear of. They made to leave, but their movement drew their father’s attention. “Children, come meet our guest for tonight, the greatest shanachie in Ireland, Scotland and England, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin.”

To walk away would anger their father, and earn them banishment from the feast that was to come, so Ciaran and Ciara came forward to address the old shanachie. “We bid you welcome to this hall, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, greatest of all shanachies.” they chorused together.

Diarmuid cocked his head to one side, and an unpleasant smile spread across his toothless mouth. “Ah, I am welcome by you two, am I? I wonder where that welcome was when you were stiffing your laughter at my appearance not a moment ago?”

Ciaran and Ciara spared a quick glance, each seeing the other’s face go pale in response to their father’s face going crimson with embarrassment. Both of them began stammered attempts at apology, but their father’s voice growled out an apology that drown theirs out. “I apologize for my children’s ill manners, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin. Ciaran, Ciara, apologize to Himself, now!”

They’d only heard that tone applied to those who had gotten on the bad side of their father’s temper, and never to themselves. Bowing low, they put every bit of the chagrin they felt into their apology. We are most humbly sorry for have offered offense to you, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin.”

They kept their faces down-turned, waiting for the acceptance of their words they expected. Instead, after a long silence, they heard a single sniff before the old man began speaking to their father again of his travels. Both of them wished to leave, but knew that until the old shanachie spoke to them, they could not, in good grace, even stand straight. He kept talking, pointedly ignoring them, and both children went from fear of their father’s reaction to anger at being so treated in their own hall. Worse, father kept up his side of the conversation, ignoring them and their plight as if they were invisible.

It wasn’t until after he’d finished a long, rambling account of his visit to the hall of the King of Connachta that Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin took notice of them. And even then, all he said to them was “Oh, you children may go.” before he launched into a story about his encounter with a Milesian trader.

Together, they raised their heads, hoping to find their father ready to rebuke the old shanachie for his lack of courtesy to them. Instead, they found their father listening with rapt attention to to the old man’s tale of the joys of wine from across the wide ocean. He did not even look towards them, leaving Ciaran and Ciara with no choice but to retire.

The shame they felt, being treated in such a manner in their own hall, felt beyond bearing. But it was nothing compared to the way the servants treated them. Like all great halls, theirs was staffed with many slaves. Some were captives taken from among the English, others people taking in battle and forced to serve those who had conquered them. All of them knew to lower their eyes and act humbly around their master and his children. Now, though, every time the children walked past a servant, there was a moment, just as their gaze slide away from them, when they saw not humbleness, but triumph. Their servant’s faces were no longer studiously blank in their presence, but held the trace of a smile, as they reveled in their tormentor’s discomfort.

That humiliation, with their father’s ignorance of their plight, raised a tide of anger in both of them they fought to contain until alone. The room they shared was the only place they could truly be alone, and once the door had closed, they both began to shout.

How could father let him…”

Can you believe the way that English serving girl looked at us…”

That we could be treated so, by our own father…..”

That old man, how dare he…”

It’s beyond bearing, it is!”

It cannot go unanswered!”

In that moment, as they often did, both children were struck by the same thought. They would find some way to take their revenge, not only on Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, but on all those who they thought had mistreated them. But how? No matter how much they debated the problem, neither of them could find a method for exacting their vengeance. They were brooding on the injustice of it all when the nameless old hag who tended them entered their room.

Your father bids me remind you to be clean and properly dressed for the feast tonight. As the other servants are busy setting the table, you should be getting ready.”

Those words sparked the same thought in both of them, a thought they held inside until they were alone again.

If we can make others laugh at that old fool…”

“….then father will have no choice but to forgive us!”

They sketched out their idea as they dressed, laughing at each new addition they came up with. Ciaran stopped in mid-laugh. “But we can’t let them know what we plan to do.”

Of course not, brother. We must be as meek as mice and as polite as can be.”

With those words, they both banished any sign of mirth from their faces and walked side by side to the feasting hall.

Outside, the rumble of thunder told them that Taranis was busy this night, but the feasting hall shone bright with candles and fires. Father and the shanachie were already seated, but enough to the family retainers had yet to arrive that Ciaran and Ciara’s arrival could not be regarded as late. They approached the two men together, bowing low before speaking.

Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, we most humbly offer you our apology. Our ill manners brought shame to our clan, our father and this house.”Ciaran started, and Ciara finished. “We both bid you welcome to our hall and house, and hope you will enjoy our hospitality.”

They’d practiced the speech several times, and both children thought their presentation perfect. It caused their father to smile at them like they’d just recited the epic of Fionn mac Cumhaill from memory. But Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin? His blind eyes stared at them until they as transparent as the waters of Loch na Coille Bige, and he could see their lie as clear as a great brown trout swimming just beneath the surface. Then cheerful smile spread across his face. “Of course, children, and I thank you for your kind welcome. Please, don’t bother yourself over an old man’s ill humors. It’s only natural for children to desire enjoyment. So I hope you will feast and enjoy yourself this night.”

Unnerved but happy to be free, the twins took their place at the long table to await the coming feast. Their wait was short, as all the retainers had heard that tonight one of the greatest shanachies in all the Irish lands was to entertain them. That, and the rich feast such a visit would entail were enough to draw every member of the household with a claim to a spot at The O’Breoghan’s table. When the last had taken his spot, father arose to address them all.

Join me in welcoming our guest tonight, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin.” The crowd raised their flagons in a roar of agreement, even the twins lifted their cups of cider. After a long silence as everyone drank the great shanachie’s health, the old man rose and lifted his own flagon. “I thank you all for your welcome and kindness. But now is no time for speeches by old men like me. Eat, drink, enjoy yourselves. Sláinte!”

An even louder chorus of agreement and laughter greeted this, and as the old man settled himself again, servants began to pour into the hall bearing food. The feast that followed brought food of every type, food in quantities fit to challenge even the greatest glutton. It flowed in such a delightful manner that the twins began to enjoy themselves, even to the point of forgetting their pledge of vengeance against Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin. But no feast last forever, and as the last plates were being taken away, every flagon was topped off and their father again rose to address the hall.

My clan, I ask you to join me again drinking the health of Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, and to ask him to grace us with the telling of one of the great tales.” The shouts that greeted this call befitted the quantity of drink and food that had gone into the assembly. They were by far the loudest of the night, and with the drink on them, the adults called out their suggestions for what tale they wished to hear.

Tell us the tale Táin Bó Cúailnge!”

No, tell us of the forming of the Fianna!

Please, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, tell us the tale of Oidheadh chloinne Lir!”

The old man listened to the cries, quietly smiling, until The O’Breoghan raised his hand for silence. When the voices had stilled, he turned to the shanachie. “Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, you are my guest, and it’s a poor host who demands payment for his hospitality. If you would choose to grace us with a tale, I would count it an honor beyond any I ever looked for. But I will not demand one of you, and if you decide to speak, I will not dictate to you what tale you tell.”

The old man bowed in his seat. “You honor me with your words, Ruari O’Breoghan. Truly, you and your hall know the meaning of hospitality far better than many another chieftain. But it would be a poor guest indeed who felt no need to repay such a feast as I have had this night. If you and yours will indulge me, I would tell the tale of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his many adventures.” The hall rang with approving shouts that brought a broad smile to the old shanachie’s face, but as they tapered off, his head turned towards Ciaran and Ciara. The smile became less one that of a man swept up in praise, and more like that of someone seeing a chance to do an old foe injury. “But that is a long tale, one that I will no doubt have to interrupt it to drink and ease my dry throat.” The men laughed at the joke, knowing the shanachie would drink many a flagon of beer before he finished. “And I would not expect the young ones here to stay awake through it all as courtesy would require. Ruari O’Breoghan, would it not be a wise thing to allow your children to retire for the night?”

Their father looked at them, then his guest, and the twins saw he had understood what was really being said. The old shanachie wanted them gone so they could not enjoy the telling of one of the greatest stories of all Ireland. Perhaps it was petty, but every chieftain knew how unwise it was to cross a traveling shanachie like Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin. “Perhaps you are right. Ciaran, Ciara, it is late, and you should be off to bed.”

Perhaps he expected them to be angry, and the twins were angry at how the shanachie had dismissed them out of hand. But as they rose and made their bows to their father, they also knew this would give them the perfect chance to exact their revenge on Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin. Ciaran and Ciara made their way to the door, but instead of leaving through it, they turned aside and slipped along the wall. They found a spot out of their father’s sight but visible to many of household and waited. They had to wait but a short moment. The shanachie rose from his seat to walk into the center of the hall. With a final bow to their father, he launched into the mighty tale.

Goll, son of Daire the Red, with fame,
Son of Eochaid the Fair, of valor excellent,
Son of Cairbre the Valorous with valor,
Son of Muiredach from Finnmag.

Goll slew Luchet of the hundreds
In the battle of Cnucha, it is no falsehood:
Luchet the Fair of prowess bright
Fell by the son of Morna.”

As he spoke, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin’s arms swept about in the sort of dramatic gestures every shanachie they’d ever seen or heard loved to use. And as he gestured, the twins imitated his every movement in silence, making their movement even more exaggerated than the shanachie’s. At first, no one noticed their antics. Then one drunk warrior caught sight of them and nudged the fellow beside him. Both of them smiled as the the sad opening rolled on.

By him fell great Cumall
In the battle of Cnucha of the hosts.
It is for the chieftaincy of Erin’s fian
That they waged the stout battle.

The children of Morna were in the battle
And the Luagni of Tara,
Since to them belonged the leadership of the men of Ireland
By the side of every valorous king.

Victorious Cumall had a son,
Finn, bloody, of weapons hard:
Finn and Goll, great their fame,
Mightily they waged war.”

A third man noticed them, and where the first two could contain their mirth, this one watched them for only a moment before chuckling, then bursting into open laughter. No man laughed at such a moment without drawing the attention of those around him. Worse, it drew the attention of Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, and he paused in mid-stanza, their. When he did, their father came around the pillar that had kept them hidden. Finding Ciaran and Ciara were the cause of the commotion, his face went scarlet. For a long moment, they watched their father’s face as he struggled to contain the anger that filled his voice when he finally spoke. “What mischief have you two been up to? I told you to go to your beds!”

This was not the result they’d hoped for. Ciaran tried to answer. “Father, we….we were just…”

“Enough!” Their father had never shouted at them like this before, nor had he ever looked this beside himself with anger when dealing with their past deeds. He scrubbed his broad hands over his face before shaking his head. “I have tolerated your actions in the past because I thought it caused by your mother not being here to help care for you. Clearly, I have been too lenient in dealing with you. No more. Tonight, now, you will take yourselves to the cottage Cillian Mag Aoidh. You will stay there, obeying his command and helping him with his farm, until I decide you have learned your lesson.”

That stopped both of them. Cillian Mag Aoidh was the oldest retainer of their clan they knew of, a man so old he’d taught their father the use of weapons. For this service, their grandfather had gifted him a cottage and some land overlooking a cove most of a day’s walk from the hall. Did their father truly expect them to make the walk at night?

But father, how can we got to…”

Ciaran had no chance to finish his question. Father cut him off, his voice filled with anger. “You’ve made the walk more than once, both of you. Ill let you take your cloaks, it’s going to be a wet walk, but enough delays. You need to learn that your actions have consequences. If that means walking to an old man’s cottage in a storm, then consider it a small price to pay for the offense you have committed against this hall and your family’s name. Go! Be getting yourselves out of my sight.”

Their father stormed off to retake his seat, leaving them in a circle of shocked, silent faces. Ciarian turned to do as he was told, but Ciara, as usually, would not leave well enough alone. “This is all your fault, you filthy old beggar! Coming into our hall, disrupting our lives, and for what? So we can hear you tell a tale in your silly voice! Who’d want to hear you say anything?”

Such a blatant insult caused even Ciaran to gasp. He grabbed his sister’s arm, intent on checking her, but his words stooped in his throat when the bard turned towards them. His eyes were no longer milky white. No, now they glowed like the center of a forge as he spoke.

And who will ever hear your voice again, disrespectful child? Lugh sees what you children do, and all the gods have heard what you say. My you both repent your words and deeds, for if you don’t, then the gods will curse you to silence from this day forward.”

Whether it was those terrible eyes, or the cold ringing voice that called so ominous a curse down upon them, the twins fled the hall as fast as their feet would carry them. Yet even as they donned their cloaks, Ciara continued to rant about what had happened. “How dare he? Try to scare us with that silly curse, will he? Like I’d be put down by the likes of him!” She was still muttering under her breath as they exited the front door and made their way through the gate. As it closed behind them, Ciaran grabbed his sister’s arm, hoping to reason with her.

Are you mad, thinking his curse hollow? Did you not see his eyes, nor hear his voice? We need to apologize to Himself, we do.”

Ciara stopped, but listen to him? She’d never listened to him, or anyone else, once her blood was up. She shook off his hand, and stared at him for a long moment. Her voice, when she spoke, was like a whip of thorns on his soul. “Is it a brother I was born with, or a sister? Was I the only one born with any courage, or any sense of what’s right? No, we need to find a way to strike back for this insult, we do. For if we don’t, we’ll never be respected as long as we live.”

Her words drove Ciaran’s reason aside, leaving his anger to take control of him. “I’m no woman, and I’ll not have anyone say otherwise, not even you! But what can we do, now, cast out of the hall?”

We might be cast out of the hall, for now, but there’s no one to say we can’t plan our revenge while we walk now, is there?”

With those words, the twins set out through the growing darkness, spinning out more and more elaborate plans for taking revenge upon the shanachie. But with every step they took, the darkness of the storm, until then just a threatening presence on the horizon, came closer. Taranis announced it’s arrival with a stupendous clap of thunder, followed by a roaring wind filled with rain and hail. Their cloaks did little to protect them from the assault, so Ciaran grabbed his sister’s hand and together they ran through the deluge seeking shelter. But no cottage, not even a herdsman’s lowly shelter, did they find. Again and again, Taranis’ mighty hammer struck the heavens, sending lightening down to smote the ground, and thunder to stun their ears.

Hope of shelter began to fail the twins when a huge dark shape loomed out of the rain. Changing course, they found it to be a ruined oak tree, its branches bare even though Litha was but two months passed. Ciara raised her cloak enough to tilt her head back before rounding on Ciaran. “Well, brother, this is a fine discovery you’ve made! Are you next going to lead us to a stream, so we can stay dry by drowning in it now?”

It’s sure you’ve a tongue in your head, but no brains to go with it. At least if we can go to the downwind side, we’ll have a bit of shelter to stand in while we get our bearings. Or do you enjoy being pelted by hailstones?”

That silenced his sister, but the thing that amazed them both was the broad, dark crack they found in the mighty tree’s trunk. Ciaran reached into it, up to his shoulder, and found nothing. “I think there’s space in here for one of us, maybe both. Would you like to try getting in, or would you rather I go first?” Ciara had a deathly fear of small spaces, something her brother knew well. “No, you can go first.”

Ciaran found the crack wider at the bottom than the top, but even there, it was more like he was forcing his body through the solid wood than into an open crack. Slipping his cloak off allowed him to finally get himself into the space behind the opening. It was profoundly dark inside, but it was also dry. Better, when he sat down and stretched his legs out, his feet barely touched the opposite side of the hollow. “Come in, sister, it’s dry and there’s plenty of room for both of us.”

Ciara heard her brother’s shout, but the thought of squeezing through the narrow opening filled her with a fear she couldn’t easily overcome. Another stroke of Taranis’ hammer, this one sending a lightening bolt down on a hilltop in front of her, overcame her fear. Unlike Ciaran, she could squeeze through the crack without shedding her cloak. Her brother helped her settle in next to him, and rather than get his own cloak, they wrapped themselves in Ciara’s. Ciaran could feel his sister shivering, and knew it had little to do with the chill from their wet clothing. “I ask you, is this not better than being out in rain?”

It is, but my heart still quivers with fear at the thought of being here. Does it not bother you, brother, to be in this small space?”

Ciaran opened his mouth, ready to deny he felt fear at all, but some deep part of him feared this place. When he answered as levelly as he could. “It does bother me, but I can set aside my fear if it means I’m not battered by hailstones while being soaked to my skin by rain.”

Ciaran should have listened to his fear. The words had just left his mouth when the crack they’d entered through closed without a sound. The noise of the storm gone, they could hear the great tree creaking, sounding so like a high, squeaky voice laughing at them. For a moment, they were stunned into silence. Then, as one person, they flung themselves at the wood, beating it with their fists, scratching at it with their fingernails. And as they tried to force the crack open, both of them screamed and screamed for help.

#

Ruari O’Breoghan’s head felt fit to burst as he untangled himself from the young Scottish serving girl he’d bedded and threw aside the bed covers. “Am I too old to be at the drink?” It was a question that made him want to prove his vigor. After a quick piss, he crawled back into bed for a morning’s roll with the fine young wench still asleep there. She was quite happy to oblige him, and after a long, breathless ride, she took his seed with joy.

Ruari lay for a while, happy to be resting, as his bed partner dressed and left. Then he rose, dressed himself, and made for the kitchen to find something to eat. There was a fine level of chatter going on, but every voice fell silent when he entered the room. That sudden silence told him something had happened, but he knew asking what would get nothing but silent evasion. “Cook, a bowl of porridge and mug of warm cider. Bring both to the small hall.”

The small hall was the oldest part of the complex that house the O’Breoghan’s. Supposedly it had been build by Ruari’s great-grandfather, but whomever built it, it was a dry, warm space on even a raw wet day like this. Cook brought Ruari’s breakfast himself, along with a spare mug of cider for himself. The two men had grown up together, Caolan being the son of a buanadha Ruari’s father had hired to train his warriors. Alone, they fell back into the informality they’d enjoyed as boys. “So, are you free to tell me what is it that the grand lord’s not supposed to know?”

Caolan took a long draw of his cider before answering. “Well, if you’ll be listening to the rumors flying through the hall, there’s many. The biggest is that when the servants went to ask what Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin might be wanting for breakfast, not only was his room empty, but the bed hadn’t been slept in. More interesting is the fact that the guards who were at the gate insist they never saw him leave.”

Ruari nearly choked on his mouthful of porridge. “You’re serious now?

I am.”

Well then, who was that telling us tales last night? Never mind. As my Da said, some things, it’s better to not know.”
“Aye, that true. But what of the twins? Will you be calling them back?”

No matter who our guest was, spirit or flesh, their behavior was beyond bearing. No. Staying with old Cillian for a day or two will do them no harm. In any event, I wouldn’t ask anyone to make the walk on a day like today. Besides, with them out of the hall, I’ll be able to have my breakfast without being disturbed.”

Ruari was good to his word, and it wasn’t until the the Sun rose next morning in a clear sky that he sent a servant off to Cillian Mag Aoidh’s cottage. He was brooding over his children’s manners when the whey-faced servant returned to report that the children had never arrived at Cillian’s.

What do you mean, they never arrived? Think, man! Did you see any sign of them? Any tracks?”

And how could I find any sort of sign or track after the storm we had? The only thing that could have left a mark that survived such a rain would be a herd of cattle, and two children aren’t a herd of cattle, no matter how ill-mannered.”

It was true, and Ruari knew it. Still, where could they have gotten to? “They need to be found. Have every servant, every warrior, follow the track to Cillian Mag Aoidh’s. There’s no cliffs along the path, and I can’t see them just walking into the ocean, so look for any place they might have taken shelter.” When no one moved, he rose to bellow at them “Go, blast you all! Or do I have to lead you in a simple search for two missing children?”

For the rest of that day, and all of the next, every member of the O’Breoghan clan, and every household servant, scoured the countryside. But not one sign did they find of the missing twins. On the third day, a cattleherder’s son came to the gate. The boy carried two things: a child’s cloak like the one Ciaran had worn, and a tale of as terror so profound he could not at first tell it. Several flagons of beer loosened his tongue enough to relate how he’d gone to gather missing cattle, only to find the cloak lying beside an ancient oak tree. It had been dead as long he had been alive, but none of the local people would cut it down because it was held to be sacred. But when the boy found the cloak, the tree had been covered in fresh green leaves, like it was a young sapling. It also had something else new: a pair of burls the boy had never seen before. Two burls like a pair of faces screaming from the side of the tree.

Ruari O’Breoghan followed the cattleherder’s son to the tree. It was well away from the path his children should have been following, but on reflection, he realized that on a stormy night, it might have drawn the twin’s attention. He had never visited it before, but one look at the pair of burls protruding from its side told him all he needed to know. Even with their mouths locked forever in mid-scream, and the faces twisted in terror, he knew the faces of his children.

#

No one ever bothered what became known as the Tree of Screams. Even a thousand years later, when black Cromwell’s men made a sport of desecrating Irish holy sites, none of them would approach the towering oak. When it fell in a cyclone, the people who lived nearby hoped the dark curse that had brought it to be was dispelled. Then a sapling sprang from it’s roots, and no one was surprised to find, on it’s side, the same screaming faces.

What are monsters made of?

“Sarah!”

The thing in front of him did not like Pete yelling. “Thing” was the only word he could use to describe the muscular human body wearing a tattered pair of jeans and topped with a wolf’s head. It lunged forward, reaching out like a man would to grab him while it’s muzzle split open in a snarl. The teeth this revealed would shred him in an instant if he didn’t do something.

He did something. It moved like a man, but it seemed to have the mind of a wolf. Pete was able to dodge it, and as it passed, he slammed the crowbar in his hand into the back of it’s head. The thing went down, and howled like a dog as Pete brought the crowbar down again and again until it fell silent.

It wasn’t the first horror Pete had seen. Another thing, much like this one but smaller, lay in the front room of his house. A woman’s body with a cat’s head and claws lay on the steps to his house. Pete had beaten them to death too.

Now that wolf-head was dead, there was nothing between him and his daughter’s room. He stepped over the still form and advanced on the familiar door. Blood had spattered everywhere in the hall, including a thin line of drops marred the childish sunflower that decorated Sarah’s door. Pete reached out to grab the door knob, and the house shook. It wasn’t hard to understand why it was shaking. Not a block away, a giant lizard was methodically reducing Plainview Grade School to a pile of rubble.

Fuck it, Pete, be honest, that’s fucking Godzilla stomping the school to pieces.

Pete remembered staring at the giant beast through his front windshield, wondering how many kids had escaped before the walking nightmare had begun its work. Even if the kids had all escaped, he had to do something, and quick. His fingers closed around the familiar doorknob, and it opened as it always had when he twisted his wrist.

“Sarah?”

The inside of his daughter’s room was all shadows and half-light. Like him, she had trouble sleeping if there was too much light in the room. So the room’s only illumination came from a tiny strip of sunlight that leaked around the edges of a set of heavy ‘black-out’ curtains. As it often was, there was a minefield of toys and discarded cloths between Pete and the bed where Sarah lay. She gave no hint she’d heard him.

“Sarah?”

He spoke louder, hoping she’d wake, but beyond a quick toss of her head, Sarah gave no sign of having heard. Again, like him, once his daughter was asleep, waking her could be near-impossible.

“Sarah!”

Louder still, but as he spoke, a thunderous roar tore the air outside. Sounding like a cross between tearing metal and low-flying jet, it shook not just the air, it rattled the room’s windows and throbbed through Pete’s body.

And still Sarah did nothing more than toss fitfully in her sleep.

Pete threaded his way through the object on the floor to reach his daughter’s bed. Bending down, he touched her shoulder. “Sarah, it’s Daddy. Wake up honey.”

His daughter rolled away from him with an inarticulate moan, and the temperature around him drop. His next breath came out as a cloud of fog, and across the bed from him, Pete saw a dark shape forming. If the thing with a wolf’s head had been a terror, to huge blob gathering before him would be a nightmare incarnate. It towered over him, topping out just beneath the eight foot ceiling, and half as wide as Sarah’s bed was long.

Pete had seen the darkness take shape before. His daughter had been a scared three year old, and he had gone to her bedroom to check on her. Like now, he’d found her asleep already. But as he stood beside her bed, he’d watched as the shadows coalesced into a teddy bear…a teddy bear in armor, carrying a sword and shield…a teddy bear that rose and moved between Pete and his daughter like a sentry.

“Sarah, you have to wake up now!”

The guardian teddy hadn’t done anything, but the way it positioned itself between them told Pete he would not be allowed to touch his daughter. It was gone the next morning, and Sarah had no memory of it.

But a few weeks later, another child had pushed Sarah down at the playground. The child and its parent had apologized, and Sarah had seemed to accept it with no hard feelings. But that night, Pete had witnessed a black outline of something that looked like himself stalk out of the house and vanish into the night. The next day, the town was abuzz with stories of a family murdered in their sleep, each member beaten to death in their beds. It wasn’t until the local paper printed their obituaries that Pete realized the family had been that of the child who’d pushed Sarah. And no one was ever brought to trial for the crime.

The dark shape became more defined. A rounded head, a long muzzle, broad shoulders…it began to look like one of the polar bears that had so fascinated Sarah at the zoo. Another screech, like the world itself were being ripped apart, tore the air outside.

People were dying outside, just as his wife had died after telling Sarah she shouldn’t be angry all the time. A black something had ripped her to shreds as she took a bag out to the garbage, leaving no trace the police could find. After that, things had gotten worse, and Sarah seemed angry all the time, just as she had been this afternoon when she’d come home from her first day at school. And now the school was being destroyed.

Pete had to act, now, before the monstrous shape across the bed could solidify and kill him. He had to act, or more people would die.

“Please, Sarah, wake up for Daddy. Please stop this.”

Sarah didn’t wake, but the giant shape became more defined. It’s thick arms made a few tentative swings, and from deep in its broad chest, he heard a rumbling growl like a dozen angry mastiffs.

Pete’s daughter was becoming a monster. He knew that. He’d hoped she’d grow out of it. But she ‘d just become angrier.

“I love you, Sarah. Daddy will protect you from the monsters.”

His arm rose, the crowbar came down, he swung it again and again, until the monster in his daughter’s bed was dead, and he wished himself dead beside her.

The face in the mirror

I don’t remember the first time I had the dream. That’s odd, because I have many memories of my early childhood. My first distinct memory is of chaotically tumbling while all around me, people scream. When I described it to my parents, they were shocked. They wondered how I could remember something that had happened to me when I was barely three years old. Father told me that a tire had blown on a slick road, and he had caused the car to roll over while trying to counter the effects.

But for all that, I have no clear memory of the first time I awoke from that same eerie dream. I am standing in front of a mirror, looking at my reflection. What I see is the me of that moment. As a young boy, I saw a young boy. Now, as an adult, I see my adult self in the mirror. But as I stare at the mirror, I see another face appear.

It is ghostly at first, like the beginnings of a sketch. But as the dream progresses, my face disappears, replaced by a face like mine, but different. It was a young girl when I was a young boy. Now, it is a grown woman. Her hair is midnight black like mine. Like me, her nose is long and thin. Her lips are fuller than mine, but it is her eyes that are the most striking. Like mine, they are brown, but they lack any warmth, which I find find disconcerting. And always, always, she looks out of the mirror, smiles…and I know. I know she knows I can see her.

Who she is, I don’t know. I asked my parents about her, even going so far as to accusing them of concealing a twin, for that is how she appears to me. They denied it, denied that I was ever anything but their only child. I could see the truth in their eyes, but my heart still wonders who that strange yet familiar face in my dream was.

The dreams began to come more frequently. From a once-a-month occurrence, they became weekly. Then they visited me every night. And for the first time, the dream changed. The image in the mirror still morphed from my face into that of a woman very much like me. But now, rather than smile knowingly at me, she spoke. And her words were chilling.

“I am here, and I will not be ignored any longer.”

Now, instead of awakening with a start, I bolted awake screaming, her ominous words still echoing in my mind. I began to dread the night, to fear sleep that offered not rest, but terror. I began staying awake, sometimes all night. My work began to suffer, my friends started noticing my listlessness. But I couldn’t tell them what kept me from the sleep I needed. Nor could I tell them that those times I did sleep offered no rest.

Then I got sick.

It started as stomach aches, annoying but something I could ignore. As time passed, my pain grew. From discomfort, it became more and more debilitating. My doctor was baffled, as where the specialists he sent me to. Tests found none of the tell-tale cells that would indicate I had cancer. Finally, an MRI finally found something, what the doctor less than helpfully described as an ‘undefined mass’ in my stomach. He wanted to do a finer scan, but the machine would not be free again for a week. They gave me ‘pain management’ medication, and told me to return.

The medicine, huge pills that looked like something for a horse, did what the doctors said they’d do. Within an hour of taking the first one, the pain was little more than a nagging twinge at the edge of perception. But the pills also brought something else, a very unwelcome guest. They brought sleep, sleep that would not be denied. No matter how I fought, my eyes kept sagging shut. My last memory was sitting in my favorite chair, struggling to stay awake; the next, I was in the dream.

This dream soon turns different. Instead of overlaying my face, the woman’s face slowly materialized next to mine, like she were standing behind me looking over my shoulder. I see a hand rise, descend, and felt a touch on my shoulder. My mind tells me it is impossible. I know nothing can touch me, can harm me, not in a dream.

But it is real. I can feel the pressure of each of those fingers on my shoulder. I feel warmth were they rest upon me. I scream, but I do not wake up. Behind me, the woman waits. She neither smiles nor frowns, her face a blank mask except for her eyes. In them, I see amusement, and the willingness to wait until I stop screaming, to wait as if she has all the time in the world. I master the fear that always strangles me when I saw that face and stop screaming. She nods, once, a motion much like my own. Then, she speaks.

“So, this time you can’t escape? Now, I can finally confront you, murderer.”

“Are you crazy? I’ve never hurt anyone, let alone murdered anyone.”

Her eyes harden. “Liar! You are a murderer, and I will exact revenge from you!”

I want to turn around, to face her instead of arguing with a reflection, but my feet, my whole body, are frozen in place. I can’t even turn my head. Only my eyes and lips are at my command. I feel panic rising and try to force it down. “Fine, if I’m a murderer, who did I kill? When am I supposed to have killed them?”

Her eyes narrow, and her grip on my shoulder tightens. “Don’t play the innocent! You know who you killed, and you know when you killed them too!” Her grip tightens until I feel her fingernails dig into my flesh. Her lips thin, exposing her teeth as they stretch into a fierce smile. “So, you can get away? Only for a while, murderer, only for a short while.” Her presence begins to fade, and in that final moment, I hear the thing I fear the most. “I’ll be waiting for you, and when you come back, I’ll make you pay!”

I wake up on the floor, arms wrapped around my legs, knees pulled as tight as I can pull them to my chest. My throat is raw like I have screamed all night, and my shirt clings to me, soaked in a stinking fear-sweat. I force myself upright and look at the clock. It’s 6:30 in the morning, and the patch of sky visible through the window is growing light. I wonder if this is how the rest of my nights will be? And if it is, will my sanity survive the week?

The pain in my midsection begins to reassert itself. But take another pain pill, and possibly face that angry presence? No. I pull out a favorite book to try to distract myself, but it is no use. Every minute, every second, the pain increases. It increases, becomes like a wild animal trying to claw its way out of my belly, and I give in. Time passes, the pain recedes, and I feel my eyes sagging again. They are starting to close for what I fear will be the last time before sleep claims me when my cell chirps at me. I know the voice on the other end of the call, my internal medicine specialist, but it seems to be coming from a million miles away.

“Mr. Sanchez, it’s Doctor Linden. We’ve had a patient cancel their MRI appointment. If you can get to the clinic in the next hour, we can get your scans done and, hopefully, get a handle on what’s going on.”

I mutter something that doesn’t make sense even to me, and the voice on the other end picks up on my state. “Sir, are you having a reaction to your pain medications? Sir?” I can’t even work up the energy to answer, my body wants to do is sleep. I hear a distant voice shouting. It wants my attention, but I can’t make myself bother to try. “Help is on the way, Mr. Sanchez. Just hang on, sir, help is on the way.” The voice sounds concerned, and I know I should stay awake, but my eyes shut. Sleep takes me.

There is no mirror in my dream this time. Now, I am in a vast space, a dark plain that extends beyond sight. And I am alone. She, who ever she is, is not here. In a way, this complete emptiness is more frightening than she ever was.

“Are you afraid, murderer?”

Her voice is soft, hardly a whisper, but the words are spoken so close to my ear I feel the warm breath that makes them. I jerk away from the unexpected closeness, and unlike every previous dream, I move. Free of my imprisonment, I turn to face her. She is shorter than me, but only slightly, and her rounded body reminds me of my mother. Her face, so like mine, is lined, her features drawn together in an angry scowl.

“Why do you keep calling me a murderer? I don’t remember ever seeing you, and I’ve never hurt anyone in my life. So how can I be a murderer?”

She steps close to me, close enough that I feel uncomfortable. Her voice, when she speaks, is filled with a cold, contained anger. “But you are a murderer. You killed me, in cold blood. You snuffed out my life without a thought.”

Her statement makes no sense. “But if I killed you, why can’t I remember killing you? Are you saying I’ve somehow repressed the memory of murdering you?”

“Oh, you remember killing me…if you didn’t, how could I be talking to you?”

“You could be…I don’t know, a figment of my imagination, or a manifestation of my wish that I hadn’t been an only child.”

“You wanted a sister?”

The anger drops from her face like a curtain falling, replaced by an intent gaze like she’s trying to catch me in a lie.

“It might sound selfish, but a sister, a brother, hell, even a dozen siblings. My parents heaped all their hopes and dreams on me. I hated the expectations, the pressure to succeed. If I’d had brothers and sisters, I’d have been happier, and maybe they’d have been happier too.”

Her face changes. The suspicion, the doubt, the anger, all of it drops away, leaving a stunned stare. Then I see something I had never thought to see on that cold, cynical, face. Tears well in her eyes, run down her face. When she speaks, her voice is a hollow echo of what it has been before. “You wanted me? You didn’t kill me because you hated me?”

I open my mouth to tell her that I didn’t know her, so I couldn’t have hated her, but her scream stops the words in my throat. A broad red slash appears on her left arm, and when her eyes fix on mine, I see the hate, the anger renewed a thousand times over. She charges me, and her hands go to my throat. Her fingers, surprisingly strong, sink into my flesh and I find myself gasping for breath. As she strangles me, she screams in my face.

“Liar! You kept me talking so you could kill me again! I won’t go, not without you!”

I try to free myself, but my body refuses to respond. The blood thunders in my temples, my vision darken, but even knowing death is close at hand, I can do nothing. My sight dims to nothingness, and the last thing I see is not my attacker, but my Mother. She smiles, and as she always did, she looks sad as she does it. I hear voice one final time.

“It’ll be all right, Paulie, it’ll be all right.”

It is my nose that tells me I am not dead. It brings me the smell of a hospital room, so familiar from my vigil over Father. I am surrounded by the harsh chemical scent filled with a background of human filth that I associate with a hospital room. My body comes back to me next. It tells me I am lying on my back with something stuck to both of my arms. There is a steadily beeping, the noise far too loud for my comfort, and my brain tells me it is a heart monitor. My eyes are reluctant to open, but I force them to obey, and I see off-white ceiling tiles set in a white metal framework. It’s a hospital ceiling, if ever I saw one.

Something is pressing against my left hand, and I shift my head to see what it is. A white cord, ending in an oblong box studded with buttons…the same sort of control and communications pendant my Father had at his bedside. I fumble with the box, stabbing the big button with the nurse’s head outlined on it until a young woman comes in.

“It’s good to see you awake, Mr. Sanchez, I hear you gave the doctors quite a scare. Do you need help, maybe something to drink?”

She says drink, and I realize my mouth is dry, so dry my tongue feels like sandpaper. I try to speak, manage a croak, and purse my lips like I’m sucking on a straw. She nods, grabs a foam cup, and places the straw sticking out of it in my mouth. I suck on it and cold water floods my mouth. I keep sucking on the straw until I’m sucking air, open my mouth, and let her put the cup down. I try to speak again, and I’m happy to hear even the rough echo of my voice that comes out.

“What happened? I remember being at home, and the doctor calling…then, I’m here.”

I notice her name tag. “Brandy” shrugs as she answers me. “I don’t know the details, but you’ve only been on the floor for a couple of hours. Before that, you were in ICU for three days. The doctors haven’t made their rounds yet this morning, so you should be able to find out what happens when they come around. Until then, would you like something to eat? Breakfast was served about the time you were being brought in, and lunch won’t be for another two hours, but I can get you something from the ready fridge. Maybe some ice cream?”

Ice cream, even three of the small tubs they serve out, does little more than take the edge off my hunger. Five minutes is all it takes for me to know there is nothing on the TV besides inane daytime programming, so I turn it off and wait.

Some time during that wait, I fall asleep. I know I was asleep because I have memories of the sunlight slanting low through the window, then the light is shining down from a much higher angle. An older woman with skin as dark as mine and a stethoscope is standing by my bed, her finger pressed against the inside of my wrist.

“Good, you’re awake, Mr. Sanchez. I’m Doctor Bajaj, your attending physician. How are you feeling?”

“Honestly, I feel confused. Do you know what happened to me?”

She picks up a tablet I hadn’t noticed on my bedside table and begins tapping the screen. A few swipes, and her eyes begin to scan the screen. “I wasn’t part of the team that operated on you, but according to the admission notes, you were brought in unconscious and rushed into the ER.” A pause as she reads, then her eyes widen, and she flicks the tablet’s surface again. Her hesitation is beginning to worry me. What could she be reading that would cause her to stop so suddenly? Her eyes meet mine, then shift away… and I know what she says isn’t entirely true. “All the details of what was done aren’t here, but it does say you underwent emergency surgery, and that you suffered a cardiac incident caused by acute blood loss. This lead to you being placed in our ICU until your surgical team was satisfied with you condition. Your surgical team should visit you sometime this afternoon, so you can get the details from them. Now, I’d like to listen to your heart and lungs….”

I’d seen what happened next done to my Father and Mother, but being on the receiving end of it helped me understood why they frowned through their examinations. Doctor Bajaj was perfectly civil to me, yet so detached that I felt more like an animated piece of meat than a human being. Finished, she tapped the tablet, I guess making notes, then addressed me.

“Your heart and lungs sound good, but your blood pressure is still low. I’m going to recommend that you remain in the hospital for at least another day, and I’ll be ordering another unit of saline to help build your blood volume. I’ll be back this afternoon…” and that was it. She walks out without giving me any information, leaving me feeling as if I’d ceased to exist the moment she made her decision on my treatment.

I was in a room by myself, and staring at the walls soon got boring. I was spared having to resort to watching TV doctors pretend to treat pretend patients by a cheerful young man who brought me a newspaper, then handed me the day’s menu.

“I’ll be back later to get your order, or you can call the kitchen and they’ll put your lunch order on the cart. The doctors don’t have you on a special diet, so you can order anything you want.”

I hadn’t noticed how close to noon it was. My stomach growled, letting me know it was looking forward to me eating something. “Thanks. If you’ll tell me how to call the kitchen, you won’t have to come back.”

He points to a number printed across the bottom of the page, “Just call that number, sir.” leaving me feeling like an idiot. I thank him and he goes about his business. Lunch, I soon find, is not going to be a five-star affair. I pick what’s described as an ‘open-faced sandwich’ and coffee, call it in, and open the paper to occupy my mind. Ten minutes later, I’ve read everything of interest.

Lunch, when it arrives, could generously be described as ‘inoffensive’. It has no real taste, not even a scent to match its description. The coffee is hot, bitter and completely lacking in stimulation. I eat and drink all of it knowing that ordering something else will not improve the situation. The server returns, clears the dishes away without comment, and I am left with my boredom.

Sleep come to me, but I don’t realize I’ve slept. What woke me up isn’t hard to figure out. The familiar Dr. Bajaj stands beside my bed with an older man and a woman who looks like she should still be in college. They are discussing me in the cold, abstract terms doctors use, but the medical jargon is thick enough that I can’t understand whether I am living or dying. I shift my position and they realize I am awake. The man approaches me, pitching his voice to give the impression he wishes to engage me and failing.

“”Mr Sanchez, I’m Doctor Werten, the doctor who operated on you. How are you feeling? How is the pain you were experiencing?”

Until he asked, I hadn’t noticed the absence of pain. How could I miss something that had so been the focus of my life? “It’s…gone, doctor. Do you know what was causing it?”

His eyes, which had been fixed on me, shift away. “Yes, I do. Your spine was under pressure from a foreign mass. That was triggering your pain episodes. The mass was also partially wrapped around your aorta, and putting pressure on it which lowered the blood flow to your lower body. That is why you became unconscious, the pain medication wasn’t being equally absorbed by your body.” He paused, his eyes fixing on mine for the first time. “I was unable to reawaken you and operated immediately. Unfortunately, the scans didn’t show was that there were several small blood vessels running through the mass that connected to your aorta. I’m sorry to admit it, but I severed one of those, and you nearly bled out before I could close it off. After that, I kept an eye out for more vessels and managed to seal the rest off without further incident. Once your blood volume has returned to normal, you’ll be free leave and go back to your normal routine.”

I heard the words ‘foreign mass’ and the rest of it became minor details. “What do you mean when you say you removed a ‘foreign mass’? Was it cancer?”

Dr. Werten’s eyes begin shifting around, like he’s looking for something, anything, to look at but me. “Mr. Sanchez, do you know what a vanishing twin is?” I shake my head, and he continues. “In about ten percent of pregnancies where more than one embryo is formed, one of the embryos will absorb the other one. It’s not something that causes problems…or I should say it’s not normally something that causes problems. Usually, if there’s anything left of the absorbed twin, it’s fragments. The most common form it exhibits in the surviving twin is stray teeth, hair and other fragments in a benign cyst. But in your case,” He pauses, and a chill sweep over me. What did he find inside me? I don’t have to wonder. “In your case, we found significant development. Teeth, hair, even a partial skeleton. We also found…well, we found what we think were undeveloped brain cells. But the important thing is that the growth has been removed, and you should be free of pain from this point forward.”

Now, the chill I feel is like I’ve been submerged in an ice-covered pond. I don’t want to know, but I ask. “Dr. Werten…could you tell if the twin was female?”

His eyes meet mine, and I see he is shocked by the question. “We’d have to do a DNA test to find out. If you don’t mind he asking, why do you ask?”

She’d said I had killed her. I even heard her screams as they’d removed her. Had she been alive inside me all this time? Was that why I’d always had the dream? How could I explain that to him? I can’t.

“Oh, no reason, no reason at all.”

Death goes home

Since he’d died, George had done any number of things he’d never imagined doing. He’d killed the creature that killed him. He’d come face-to-face with a bona fide serial killer. Hell, he’d even freed a town from an undead killer that targeted its children. But none of that had been as hard, or as nerve-wracking, as sneaking into his old home town. Or figuring how to get into his old high school without being seen.

Everyone in either of those locations knew he was dead. He couldn’t just hop off the bus and stroll down the street. Nor could he walk through the front door of his old high school and not have people notice.

But Anne Coulett was dead.

George had wondered about the wisdom of trying to keep track of his old friends after he’d died and come back, but the temptation had been far too great. An anonymous email account in a fake name and his pay-as-you-go smartphone were all it took to access all the social media sites he’d been on. After that, most of his old friends had accepted his ‘Friend’ request without asking who he was, or how he knew them.

Knowing his friends were still in the world was nice, but keeping in touch with Anne was different. For all his father’s strictness, George’s family had been close, even loving in its own way. Anne’s was another matter. She’d never known her father, and her mother had been a walking disaster. Anne came to school hiding bruises more times than George could remember. His earliest memory of her was of her limping into the kindergarten classroom. She had a limp because her mother taking a belt to soles of Anne’s feet. Foster care hadn’t been any kinder, and Anne’s mother always got her act together enough to return and drag her daughter back into hell with her.

But for all the ugliness she endured, Anne had a kind soul. She had been George’s first real friend, and from the posts she’d made after his death, one of the few to really mourn his passing. Over the past month, her posts had become increasingly despondent, as if losing him had cut her last tie to happiness. Then her profile had changed from ‘Active’ to ‘Memorial’ status, and from another friend’s posts, George learned that Anne had taken her life. She’d hung herself in the girl’s locker room at the high school. George had felt rage, disgust and even fear since he’d died and returned, but never the profound sense of sadness he felt when he learned his best friend had committed suicide.

Then the rumors sprouted up. Stories of a cold presence, like a dead hand placed on a shoulder. Then more menacing things began to occur. An unexplained shove at the top of the stairs, a slip in a shower that sent a girl sprawling painfully on the floor. George, worried that Anne might have come back. Coming to school in ragged old clothing, having everyone regard her mother as the town slut, made her a prime target for bullying by other girls. George had seen and heard it a few times, but knew Anne had endured far worse. Could her desire for vengeance have caused her to remain on the mortal plane? The fear she had led him to go home.

Getting there was both easy and hard. He’d had a good run panhandling in Baton Rouge, so money wasn’t a problem. George caught a bus that took him to Ottumwa, and managed to catch a ride to the next town over from his. But from there, it had been a series of long, slow night time walks through the Iowa countryside His phones GPS kept him on track as he navigated the gravel back roads. But doing everything he could to avoid bumping into the living meant he was off the road well before the sky began to lighten with approaching dawn. Most days, he hunkered down corn fields, surrounded by the sound of the wind stirring the foliage. The days he could find an isolated barn, or better, a derelict farm house, were a blessing.

George had plotted his walk to bring him around his old home town, allowing him to approach the high school for a direction that left only a short walk through the town streets. The gap in the chain link fencing that had existed since he’d entered high school still hadn’t been repaired. It gave him access to the grounds, and with that, a way to get to the grounds keepers storage shed. Like the gap in the fence, every kid in school knew the latch on the storage shed could be ‘jiggered’ with just the right combination of shaking and pressure. Smokers, dopers and the occasional lucky stiff getting laid by his girl friend had used the trick to get some privacy for longer than anyone could remember,

There was a spot, up in the rafters, that none of those privacy seekers knew of. George had noticed it by accident one late spring afternoon when he’d been disgusted with running track in PE. George had ducked into the shade offered by the buildings open door and looking up, had noted a darker shadow under the roof. A series of odd length 2X4’s had been nailed to the blank wall studs to form a rough ladder. He climbed it and found some past ground keeper, perhaps planning to convert the space above the rafters into more storage, had scrounged up a couple of sheets of plywood and started building a floor. All of it was crusted with untold ages of dust and accumulated crud. George had taken a first, tentative step onto the wood, and finding it unmoving, had ventured to explore this new space. A broom borrowed from below cleaned the improvised floor enough that George could sit on it without getting filthy. It had become his private retreat, a place to go when things went as badly as they usually did for a skinny half-Asian kid in small-town Iowa.

A patina of filth had begun to build up again. At some point since he’d died, a bird had taken a liking to the top rung of the ladder. White streaks of bird shit formed fans down the ladder, and George found himself reluctant to touch them. Then the absurdity of it all hit him. “Hell, you’re dead! Nothing that bird might have is going to bother you.” It was a whisper to himself, but it echoed like a shout in the quiet building. George mounted the ladder and stretched out on the dusty wood to wait for his moment.

The light grew, and with it, the noise outside. The rumbling growl of the diesel engines in the school buses, someone driving a ‘muscle car’ gunned their pride and joy before turning it off, the muffled voices of kids entering the school. Then the silence began to return as the first bell of the day shrilled out over school grounds. A squeal of tires and the sound of running feet spoke of someone late for class. Then there was nothing but the occasional muffled announcement from the school’s PA system. Still, George waited. He knew when his time to slip into the school would come.

The phone vibrated, notifying him that his moment was close at hand. George had spent enough time in the shed to know that some things were universal. He silenced the phone, and as he slid it into his pocket, the sound of someone opening the main door filled the building.

“Fuckin’ kids have been at this place again. Damn little brats. I wish the school board would let me deal with’em. Gettin’ in here and messing my stuff up. After a bit of my ‘discipline’, they’d think twice about breaking into school property, that’s for sure!”

Old Mr. Schmidt had been head grounds keeper forever. George’s mother spoke of him having the same job when she had been a student at this same school, and he’d been a terror for kids through all that time. George knew that he was also a creature of habit. Every school day at precisely 9:30, he opened the storage shed, and he always complained about the students. George stayed as still as he could, having learned from experience that the floor he rested on creaked, and Mr. Schmidt, for all his faults, was not deaf. Today must be one of the days when Schmidt felt the lawns needed mowing, because there was with a growl that filled the building, the big gang mower started. George waited, listening to the way the sounds shifted, letting them paint the picture of what was going on below him. The mower backed out, then the roar of its engine dropped as the door slid shut. A final pause, probably so Schmidt could erect the umbrella he loved to have over him on sunny days, and then with a final rev, it drove off. Now, it was time to leave his hiding spot.

Back down the ladder, and a shove at the sliding door gave him a crack to spy through. A little more, and he could stick his head out. Nothing. George slipped through the opening and closed the door behind him. There were few windows in the school that faced this direction, and even if someone were watching from one of them, all they’d see was a student slipping out of the storage shed and back into school. It happened often enough in a school day that no one should even notice.

Also like usual, Mr. Schmidt had propped open the door to the boiler room. He was supposed to lock it after himself, a security policy that had been in place even when George was still alive. But Schmidt was also naturally lazy, and hated to take the time to let himself in and out of the main building. A hunk of 2X4, battered from years of use, blocked the door from closing.

George pressed his ear against the door, but heard nothing besides the roar of the boilers. He pulled the door open, took a quick peek inside, and seeing no one, entered. As a final nod to Mr. Schmidt, and all the trouble he’d gotten into when Schmidt had caught him hiding in the shed, George kicked the 2X4 outside and let the door close behind him.

Now that he was inside, the danger of someone seeing him jumped off the scale. George’s only hope was to find one of the many nooks and crannies that existed in the rabbit-warren of a building his school had become. Every freshman entering Carswell’s Corner High School had to learn their way around the confusing and often illogical layout of the building. The central building was a hulking brick object three stories high that had been built to replace an earlier, wood-framed building on the same site. That had been in 1897, a date proudly carved into the masonry arch over the former main entrance. The New Deal had brought a gymnasium, a blocky, cast-concrete monstrosity that also housed the school cafeteria in its basement. The Baby Boom brought a brick addition that wrapped around two sides of the original school, a place filled with classrooms so identical in appearance that students needed to keep count of which doors they’d passed, and from which entrance, to know which room they needed to enter. Sometime in the early 1960’s, in a final, fitful effort to keep the companies that had started to desert Carswell’s Corner from leaving, a new wing dedicated to teaching different trades like welding, metal-working and wood-working had gone up. They’d been built on the cheap, just metal frames with low brick walls at the base of walls made of sheet metal. Everyone hated the biting cold of shop class in the winter, but by then the school district didn’t have the money to retrofit better insulation to the addition. The confusion came from the fact that all these different additions were built to different scales, with floors in one addition several feet above or below the ones on the building next to it. Openings in walls, with stairs that suddenly rose or fell to lead to other parts of the building, were everywhere. At one spot, perhaps in an example of a lucky near-miss, the second floor of the ‘new’ addition (the one built post WWII) opened onto the same floor of the ‘old’ building, only to miss lining up by an awkward step-and-a-half gap. It was infamous as the ‘Tripping Point’ because anyone, even seniors, could miss their step if their attention was elsewhere.

In all that, this was the last place George wanted to try to hide. The boiler room, being out of the way, was a favorite place for those who wanted to skip class but not leave the building. So it was subject to frequent patrols by off-duty teachers and staff hoping to find someone hoping for a little free time.

He moved to the door into the main part of the building, but trying to listen for someone beyond the door would be impossible with the roaring boilers close behind him. A slow turn of the knob, followed by a moments pause, and George eased the door open to reveal a sliver of the hall beyond it. Nothing. Opening the door enough to stick his head out, George ventured a hurried glance around. No one in the sight, he checked his phone. Classes would end in ten minutes, and the halls would fill with students. No one should be in the halls this close to the end of class, but did he want to risk the chance of being seen? A roared curse behind him made up his mind. Schmidt had stopped mowing early for some reason, and he was not amused at George’s bit of vengeance.

“Who the fuck closed the door on me! I catch the bastard, and I’ll kick their fuckin’ ass up around their ears!”

George bolted into the hall, heedless of the noise he made. There was a spot he might use, one that shouldn’t be in use this early in the day, and he made for it as fast as he could walk. Up the Fish Hook, a stair that looped back on itself to join the first floor of the new and old buildings, then a sharp right brought him to a door set in a blank wall. George felt over the broad door jam and found the spare key where it always was. He unlocked the door, stepping in and flipping on the light with the surety of someone who’d done it many times before. Some people speculated that it had been intended as a janitor’s closet, others insisted it had once been a fire exit in the old building that had been walled off once the new building blocked it.

However it had come into being, it was a claustrophobic space barely six feet wide by less than twelve feet long. Like the rest of the old building, the floors here were hardwood, polished and worn down by generations of students. It was the home of the high school’s amateur radio club. A trio of mis-matched tables formed an improvised L-shaped counter covered with equipment that the club had acquired over seventy years of existence. Cable dangled from a hole in the back corner, connecting the different radios to antennas strung across the roof of the old building. Dominating the back wall was a huge tube receiver supposedly salvaged from a World War 2 cruiser. The transmitter that matched it had resided under the same table when George had first entered the room, a dead, archaic relic that had he’d helped two friends haul out for disposal. From that introduction, George’s interest had grown. He’d been thinking of taking the exam to get his license, but his death had put an end to that.

George engaged the inside lock, sure that with only three or four members in the radio club, he was unlikely to be disturbed. The club members didn’t have a fixed time or day when they used the radios, but George knew they rarely came here during classes. So the room should be safe, and with one of only two keys to the door in his pocket, he knew that anyone who did want to get in would have to walk to the principle’s office to get the spare. All he could hope was that anyone trying to get in would make enough noise to warn him it was time to vacate his hiding place.

George knew the most comfortable seat in the room was the old office chair in front of the ancient receiver. He drew it out, sat down, and out of habit, reached out to switch the old radio on. Touching the switch, George felt another presence in the room…no, it was a presence in the radio itself. He felt the other spirit, a man not much older than he’d been when he’d died. He too had sat before this radio, but he’d been sitting before it when he’d died. George heard the screaming noise of the incoming bomb, felt the blast wave tear through the other man’s body. That man had been on the radio, doing his duty, sending urgent calls for help when his life had ended. George witnessed the final moment of the other man’s life as he relived it again and again. The watched as the bulkhead in front of him bulged, twisted, and finally shattered like it had happened in slow motion. A shard of that twisted metal skimmed across the receiver to slam into the dead man’s chest, which explained the mysterious deep scratch that ran from front to back on the radios top. George felt no malevolence in the spirit, it held no regrets beyond the the regret of the life it would never experience. Perhaps that was why every person who’d ever entered this room was drawn to this old radio. They felt the welcome of that dead spirit, happy to know that he had died to keep generations to come safe.

The presence faded. George powered the radio up, and as it’s tubes went from dark shadows to shapes glowing in varied shades of orange, he plugged in the headphones that always lay on the table before it. One ear covered, the other bare to hear his surroundings, George leaned forward and began to tune across the airwaves. A few loud stations stood out, mostly the ones who’s sole purpose seemed to be reciting endless strings of enigmatic numbers. A change in frequencies brought more signals. The BBC’s “World Service” coming in strong, George leaned back and listened to the world news from the English perspective.

The ringing of the hourly bells, the muted sounds of kids flooding through in the hall outside, offered a counter-point to the stream of news from the other side of the world. No longer needing food or a bathroom, George found, was a blessing. But in time, boredom set in. The longer ring that signaled lunch caught him by surprise, and he turned down the radio before moving to switch off the room lights. In their rush to get from one class to another, he’d been confident that no one would notice the light shining under the door. Now, with students wandering around, looking for something to do during their lunch, having the lights on almost invited someone to investigate who was in the room.

The hour passed quietly. No one tried the door, and outside of a couple debating whether or not they should ‘do it’ later on or not, no one came close to the door. The second long bell sounded the end of lunch, and with a final rush of feet, the halls emptied. George waited a few minutes, heard a final, hurried set of footsteps sprinting past the door, and turned the lights back on. Changing time brought changing propagation. The BBC signal had faded, so George tuned around. The sharp, fast-paced sound of a Morse code signal rattled out of the headphone, tempting George to try his rudimentary code skills. Whoever was sending set a pace far beyond his meager skills, so he tuned on. He kept looking until the next period bell rang before giving up. He felt the dead sailor again as he turned the radio off. “Thank you for serving. Rest in peace.” he whispered to that long-dead soul, and hoped it heard him.

The bells rang, the periods passed, and the hour grew close for school to be dismissed. George moved to the door, flipped off the lights, and opened ever so slightly. No one was in sight. Wider, and he heard footsteps climbing the Fish Hook. He’d thrown the lock already, so a quick shove presented whomever it was with a locked door. He heard the footsteps stop outside, then the sound of someone fumbling for the key before a familiar voice struck his heart.

“Damn it, who the hell didn’t remember to put the key back where it belongs?”

John Landdeker had been George’s friend for years. He’d been one of the guys who’d talked him into lugging that heavy old transmitter out of this very room. And no matter how much George would like to see his old friend one more time, he was the last person who should see George. John’s hands scrabbled along the top of the jamb, perhaps hoping someone had just put the key in a different spot. Then, with a final, mute “Fuck it!”, he heard his friend walk away. His phone said it would only be ten more minutes before classes ended, and George knew that his friend would be back with the spare room key. With no more time to waste, George let himself out. John was near the end of the hall, headed down the stair at that end that led directly to the principle’s office. George took the chance he wouldn’t look back, closed the door behind him, and put the key where it should be. John might be confused, even embarrassed to find it was where it should be, but George couldn’t let it go missing. He sprinted down the Fish Hook, nearly falling when his feet hit the floor below, and ran with everything he had to the boiler room door. Kids usually hid there during classes, so he hoped no one would search the room in the few minutes before classes were dismissed. Inside, he made for a space between one of the boilers and the outside wall. Kids tended to avoid it because there was no way into or out of the narrow space without getting smeared with dirt. It would do for a hiding place until the school emptied.

The muted roar of the boilers couldn’t mask the ringing of the final bell of the day. George remembered the chaos that ruled the halls at the end of classes. Meeting friends, seeing enemies eye him, teachers far too busy with their own concerns to care if words were exchanged, or even the odd shove administered. As long as the students got out of the building without a knock-down, drag-out fight breaking out, they could care less. All that and more he knew was happening throughout the school, an ever-repeating cycle as predictable as the Sun rising. Twice he heard the doors open, but whomever entered, whether to check something or simply to pass through, neither came to his hiding spot. George checked his phone again, saw it was almost a quarter after five, and heard the door open one more time. Another long period of relative silence followed, then with a loud “Clank” the overhead lights went out. A final time the door opened, letting a flood of light into the room, then it closed, leaving the faint glow of the emergency exit signs to illuminate the entire space.

Hand on the wall, George made his way out of hiding. It was still too early to chance the halls, but he thought it safe enough to be out of the stiflingly warm space where he’d been. But how long should he wait? He’d never heard of any club or sports team staying beyond seven, but how far beyond that should he remain in hiding? George no longer needed to eat and drink to stay alive, but there were some things even the undead could not escape. Boredom, he had long ago learned, was the most irksome things that did not end with death. He played tetris, solitaire, and every other game his phone held that interested him until his battery red-lined. It only took him until 9:30, and he’d planned to wait at least until 10 before beginning his search. “Time to get on with it.” he muttered as he stood up and headed out the door.

What George wasn’t sure of was where he should look first. Just wandering the maze of halls would take hours, time he didn’t have. Some of the incidents had occurred in the girl’s locker room, and while he was tempting to see the holy-of-hollies of his now-gone youth, he also knew that security cameras had been installed at both entrances to keep peeping toms at bay. One of his old friends had been ‘busted’ trying to sneak a peek, a fact he’d complained about on social media. George wasn’t invisible, so if Anne inhabited the place she’d died, he’d have to come back another day with some sort of disguise to keep his identity as one of the undead secret. But where else could she be? The memory came to him, the only other place an attack had taken place, and George knew where he’d look first. “So it’s off to Newgrange I go.”

Who had named the upper of two huge arched window on the East end of the ‘old’ building ‘Newgrange’ nobody knew. It was one of two pair that illuminated the stairs rising from floor to floor. The brick rectangle ran East-West, the long sides facing North and South. The later additions had been tacked onto the North and West faces, the latter covering over the matching pair of windows. Whether by plan or some freak coincidence, on the Winter Solstice, the Sun rose dead-center in the bottom of the upper window, something far too many kids had seen due to Iowa’s short Winter days. George hadn’t known the connection between that event and a similar occurrence at the ancient tomb in Ireland until Mrs. O’Sullivan, his world history teacher, had told him and every other student in his class about it.

Easing out of the boiler room, cautious of any remaining staff, George made his way through the echoing halls. This part, the newest portion of the school, presented nothing but quiet spaces George’s memory filled with scenes of swirling massive of students rushing from class to class. But as he entered the old building, there were several spots where he felt a presence. None of these manifested as ghosts, and as long as they didn’t try to impede George, he had no argument with whatever spirits resided in the dark recesses of the school. Ahead, the stairs rose, a marble-paved switchback climbing from floor to floor. The full Moon shone through both windows, a cold beacon in the dark and deserted space. George’s first step upon those stairs woke an echo in the towering space that was far louder than he’d expected. It woke something else.

“Who’s there?”

Those two simple words froze George in his tracks. It was Anne’s voice, a voice as memorable to him as his father’s or mother’s. He raised his head to scan the railings of the floors directly above him. Nothing. Would she appear if he called her?

“Anne, it’s me, George, George Ishkowa.”

A long moment’s silence, then, “You can’t be George. I went to his funeral, I stood by his grave when they lowered the casket into it. You can’t be George.”

Anne didn’t appear, but even with the sound reflecting around the stairwell, he could tell she was far above him, at the very top of the stairs. George climbed to the first landing, then turned himself full to the space above him.

“If you don’t believe it’s me, Anne, just take a look. I’m right here.”

Another silent moment, and she appeared. Anne didn’t walk to the railing, she just appeared. Her form took shape in the moonlight air. George saw her simple pony tail, the ratty Iowa State sweatshirt she always favored even though it was too big for her. If he hadn’t been able to see the railing through her hands, he might have believed Anne was there in the flesh. Her face turned down towards him, and he saw her frown.

“How are you here, George? I saw your parents at your funeral, I watched your Dad cry. That man never cries. He couldn’t have been faking it, so you must be dead George.” The frown faded, became a smile, but no smile George had ever seen in Anne’s face. It was the smile he’d seen on the face of far too many bullies who’d decided a skinny Asian kid would be a convenient target. “Are you like me, George? Did you come back to make the people who tormented you pay? We can do it together! We’ll make them sorry for all the hell they put us through, won’t we?”

He couldn’t see how he could tell her the truth, but George knew he couldn’t lie to his dearest friend. Straight out, that’s how you tell her. George felt his throat try to constrict, and forced himself to speak past it. “No, Anne, I didn’t come back to make the assholes here suffer. I came back to kill the…thing that killed me. It was the spirit of someone trapped in this world by their regrets, by the anger they felt at the world for how they died. I killed it, but doing that didn’t set me free. So I decided to save others from terrible deaths like I’d suffered.” George started climbing the stairs again, doing his best to keep his eyes fixed on Anne’s ghostly form. “I’ve stopped a lot of spirits from harming the living. I try to talk them into letting go of the things that keep them tethered to this world, and sometimes they listen…but when they won’t, I kill them.” George had reached the bottom of the final flight of stairs, but when he put his foot on the first, Anne’s form began to fade. “Anne, don’t go! I don’t want to kill you, you were my best friend. But you have to let go of your hate, your anger. You have to be willing to move on.”

There was little more of Anne’s form than a shadow, almost an outline of her form. But her voice filled the space. “How can I let go, George? Do you know what it was like for me?” She became solid again, even more solid then shed’ been before. “They were always on me, from the first day at school. Freak. Whore’s daughter. Stupid slut. It never let up, but when you were here, at least I had someone to talk to. Then you left! And they had something new to hound me about. ‘Oh, poor Anne, lost the only guy hard up enough to talk to her.’ ‘Did George get killed, Anne, or did he kill himself to get away from you?’ And that became ‘Maybe you should kill yourself so you can be with him, stupid bitch.’ So I did, just to be free of them.”

Her voice rose as she spoke, ending in a shout that rolled through the empty halls. George climbed the stairs as she spoke, his foot touching the top of the final flight as she ended. Now, at the were same level as Anne, George could see tears streaming down Anne’s face to disappear into nothingness as they dropped away. “Anne, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to leave you, I didn’t choose to leave you. If I’d been smarter, if I’d been less worried about what everyone thought of me, I wouldn’t have gone into the old Parson’s mansion. I wouldn’t have died, and you wouldn’t have had to face all that shit. I truly am sorry.” George took a step, reached out and put a hand on Anne’s shoulder. It felt as solid as when he’d done it while they were both alive. “If you need someone to hate, Anne, hate me. Those girls were just being the small-minded assholes they’ve always been, and probably always will be. I’m the one who deserted you. So hate me if you need someone to hate…but please, please don’t let your hate hold you down. Don’t let them keep you prisoner here.”

Anne stared at him while he spoke, her face blank, giving away no hint what she felt or thought of his words. It wasn’t until she spoke that he knew what effect he’d had. “George, if I let go, do you know what’s next?”

“No, Anne, I don’t. Remember, I didn’t leave this world. I don’t know what’s next. All I know is that it can’t be worse than staying here, tormenting the children of your tormentors. Is that what you want, to become a bully like them?”

For the first time since he’d laid eyes on her that night, Anne smiled, and even that wry smile was better than watching her cry. “Hell no, I don’t want to be a bully. I just wanted them to feel a little of what I felt from them.” The smile changed, some of the fierceness that had carried her through life showed through. “And I think I gave them a taste of what I went through. It’s enough. I think you’re right, George, I should leave.” The smile faded as her eyes locked on his. “But what about you? Will you ever be able to leave all this behind?”

George shrugged. “I really don’t know. Maybe this is what I was meant to do. Dad always wanted me to be like him and join the Marines, but I think even he knew I’d never pass the physical. So maybe if I can’t be ‘First to fight’, at least I can defend people from the things even Marines can’t stop.”

Anne did the one thing George hadn’t expect, she threw her arms around him. “You were always my hero, George. Thanks for being my friend, for caring when nobody else did.” George had been hugged by Anne before. She’d cried on his shoulder while telling him the latest horror her mother had invoked on her. But this was different, and rather than just hold Anne to let to let her know she wasn’t alone, George held her tight. He knew it would be the last time he held her, and even if it were just a phantom after-image of her, George wanted to remember everything about the moment.

Even as he thought that, the moment was over. Anne was gone, gone like she’d never been in his arms. He stood with his arms out, still poised like he was embracing her, then let them fall. He raised his eyes, took in the sight of the Moon in the star-filled sky, and wondered what had happened to Anne. Family lore said the first Ishkowa had fled Japan because he’d been a ‘lay preacher’ bent on converting all Japanese to Christianity, an attitude that hadn’t made him popular. George had hated going to church, and his first act of rebellion against his father had been to refuse to go. Now, looking up at the dark emptiness, George didn’t feel the least bit hypocritical as he closed his eye and spoke.

“I don’t know if you’re listening or not, but if you are, please take care of my friend Anne Coulett. She was the best person I ever knew, someone who lived through hell here on Earth and never stopped caring for others. So if there really is a heaven, I hope you’ll let her in.” Though he felt nothing in response to it, George hoped that one pray would be answered. He opened his eyes, and let the tears run down his face. Anne was gone, and he had no hope he’d ever see her again. But he knew he’d never forget her.

Amazing stories

Rain roared down on the roof of the police cruiser as Delgado ‘Del’ Salazar rolled to a stop outside Sweet Young Things. He’d driven past the ‘gentlemen’s club’ outside the tiny burg of Myers, Texas more times than he could remember, but this would be the first time he’d entered the place. The single squad car owned by the Myers PD sat in front of the entrance, flanked by the county EMT vehicle and the car driven by Paul Obert, the other county sheriff on duty tonight. The rest of the gravel parking lot was packed with the cars and trucks of the customers who were inside, leaving Del to no option but to park on the grass strip between the lot and Texas Route 23.

“Figures. It’s pouring rain, and the nearest parking spot is a good hundred feet away.”

The rain slicker kept him dry almost to his knees, the the ‘smokey bear’ hat he usually hated stopped the rain from spotting his glasses, but his feet were squelching in soaked shoes before he got to the front door. Inside, the rush of the rain was drown out by the thumping beat of music so loud it set Del’s teeth on edge before he’d even left the entrance hall.

The hall opened onto a dark room centered around a raised oval stage surrounded by a low rail. Flashing light illuminated a pair of polished brass poles that stood at either end of the stage, and a bar stretched along the entire length of the wall opposite of where Del stood. It was packed solid with men in work clothing whom were doing their best to pretend they didn’t exist. Mixed with them were a handful of women a mix of bikinis and an odd assortment of costumes.

The bar was the only island of regular light in the room. Just short of it was a second pool of light. This one came from the Maglites of two police officers, and it revealed a disturbing scene. Two men in EMT uniforms knelt beside a dead body. Del didn’t have to be any closer to know the young man lying between the EMT’s was dead. Nobody alive could twist their head nearly 180 degrees from its normal orientation, nor would a living man’s eyes have that blank stare to them. It wasn’t the first dead body Del had seen, not after two tours in Iraq and another in Afghanistan.

As a deputy sheriff, Del had authority over the local police officer. As the senior officer on the scene, he also had authority over Paul. “Time to get this show on the road.” he muttered to himself as he approached the tableau.

Neither officer noticed his approach, and Del’s shout of “What’s going on?” caused both officers to jump. The Myers PD officer, a young woman with “A. Renald” on her name tag, tried to answer. Del only caught a few odd words of her reply. He turned towards the bar, took a deep breath, and in his best parade-ground voice, shouted. “Could you please turn the damned music off?” It has the effect Del hoped for. A young black man in a muscle tee and tattered jeans pushed away from the bar and almost ran to a small platform in the corner. He twisted knobs on a control panel and the music mercifully died. In the stunned silence that followed, the only noise was the relentless hiss of the rain on the buildings roof. Del aimed a “Thank you.” at the man, then turned his attention to the problem at hand.

“So, what happened here?”

Renald took up her earlier efforts to explain. “911 got a call of shots fired at this location. I was on the scene first, followed by your officer. I found the subject already dead, and a 9MM auto lying beside him.” She pointed towards the gun in question, Del suspected it was a Ruger from what he could make out of it, but kept his opinions to himself. “Witnesses say the deceased, Oberto Soto, entered the bar and got into a confrontation with one of the dancers. Club security approached Soto and requested he leave. He did, but re-entered the club a short time later brandishing his gun. Security here is only armed with hand tasers, so they backed off. Soto then pointed his gun at the dancer and threatened to kill her.” Renald had been turning her head and pointing out the different parties she had been speaking to , but now she stopped and focused her gaze on Del. “That’s when it gets, well, strange. Everyone I’ve spoken to says some kid was over in the corner at a table. They all agree he got up, walked over to Soto, and told him to leave. Soto turned his gun on the kid and threatened to shoot him…and the kid told him to go ahead.” Renald looked away, pointed towards the floor, and Del saw three spent shell casings. “Soto fired three rounds into the kid at almost point-blank range.” She pointed towards a section of wall that framed the entrance to the main room, and Del saw for the first time the three clean holes in it. “Everyone saw the shots fired, and they all agree there was no way Soto could have missed. But the kid just stood there like it was nothing. Then he grabbed Soto’s head, twisted it, and broke his neck. He must have killed him instantly, at least that would be my guess.”

Del looked at the EMT, who was looking up at him. “Yeah, she’s right, but the force it would take to do this….no way a kid could do it. I’m not sure I could do it.” He pointed towards a pair of red marks on the side of Soto’s face. “That’s a hand print. I once read about how they train Marines to silently kill someone by breaking their necks. They wrap their arm around the victim’s head and use leverage to give them the mechanical advantage to snap the spine. From what I can tell, this kid literally put his hands on either side of this guy’s head and twisted it like it was bottle cap.”

Renald took up her narration. “But that’s not the strange part. Look at the floor, at the wall…no blood! Not a drop, anywhere. How the hell does someone get shot three times, and not only manage to kill a man with their bare hands, but not bleed a drop?”

“I don’t know, but we’ll worry about that later. Right now, we’ve got a bunch of people here we need to take statements from. I need to contact the county medical examiner to come out to collect the body and collect any forensic evidence he can. You and my man Paul get started on that. Be sure to get as much of a description of this mysterious kid as you can. Do you know who’s in charge of this place?”

Renald pointed towards an older man standing at the gap in the bar which allowed access to the rear. “Okay, you two get started on the witnesses, and I’ll see if all these security cameras are real or just for show.”

Del approached the manager and waved at the three camera pods he could see. “Any of these working? And if they are, we’re going to need a copy of any video they captured tonight.”

The manager shook his head. “Sorry, but most of them are just there to keep the customers from getting too ‘friendly’ with the dancers. Only one that’s working is the one pointed at the cash register, but it’s got no sound pick-up, so I’m not sure how much good it’ll do you.”

“So, no images of this vigilant kid? By the way, how did a kid end up in this place? Doesn’t your license require you to card people and make sure they’re 21 before you let them in?”

“Hey, the kid walked in, soaked to the skin and looking like death warmed over. All he asked for was a place he could sit out the storm. I figured he was hitching and I didn’t want to just shove him back out in this downpour. Does that make me a bad guy?”

Del waved the excuse away. “We can talk about what a Good Samaritan you are some other time. Where you out here when all this happened?”

“No, I was in the back, in my office, doing the books. I heard the shots, but by the time I got out here, the kid was gone. My security guys said he walked out like nothing had happened. How the hell does someone do that?”

“Damned if I know. Why don’t you go where ever you have your security camera recorder and get me a copy of the footage for tonight while I go call the county forensics people.”

The manager disappeared through a doorway set in an alcove behind the bar, and Del moved to the exit. Outside, under the awning protecting the entrance, he stopped and drew a deep breath. What he’d told everyone wasn’t the truth. A few week ago, he’d seen a report out of Nevada of a group of people who’d been rescued from human traffickers. It had been passed onto Del by an old friend who worked in law enforcement out there who knew of Del’s fascination with strange, amazing stories of crime. The human traffickers weren’t all that amazing, nor was their forcing a group of people to work an illegal uranium mine. What was strange was how they’d escaped: all of them agreed that a young man, a teenager , had managed to overpower not one, but several of the guards. Even stranger, at least one of the people who’d been rescued reported that the teenager had been shot several times, by automatic weapons fire no less, and had kept on going.

A rumble of thunder rolled across Del, then another came, this one close enough to illuminate the parking lot and everything around it. In that moment of light, Del saw a slight young man, a teenager, standing across the highway from the club. Then the vision disappeared into the pouring rain. Another flash, further away, gave a dimmer light to the scene, but the young man was gone. Did he really want to go into the downpour, into the darkness, to find a out who he was? He shook his head. “No, I don’t need to go looking for an avenging angel.” He squeezed the mic of his handheld. “Dispatch, this is Deputy Sheriff Salazar. Wake Doc Hastert up and tell him we’ve got a crime scene for him to examine, a homicide. EMT’s are already here, so he doesn’t need to roll his meat wagon. Just tell him to get his tail down to Sweet Young Things. Knowing that old coot, he probably doesn’t need direction.”

“Rodger that, Del. I’ll pass the word. You want I should wake up the chief?”

Sheriff Don Alperts was a stickler for proper procedure. If anyone would demand Del mount a manhunt for this phantom protector, it was Alperts. “No, Hettie, let the boss get his beauty sleep. God knows he could use it.”

The snort of laughter that got through told Del his joke was appreciated. “10-4. I’ll get the Doc on the way to you as soon as I can, Del.”

“Thanks, Hettie. You stay dry there, hear?”

“You too, Del. Dispatch out.”

#

George watched the cop go back into the strip club. How could he have been so stupid? He was dead, so the rain was little more than an inconvenience. He could have sat down in this drainage ditch and let the thunderstorm hammer down on him without taking any harm. Hell, he could probably have taken a lightening strike without noticing it. But no, he’d begged shelter in the club, then he’d been cocky enough to confront that angry clown when he’d threatened the only woman who’d talked to George. His undead form took no damage from the gunshots, but then he’d been dumb enough to react and kill the man.

George gave a final look at the club before rising from behind the road and walking away. “I gotta be more careful, or somebody’s going to catch on to me.” he told himself as the night and rain swallowed him.

“Let’s go home, Dad.”

Jack was twenty when an idiot blew through a stop sign and t-boned him. He’d survived because the other car had slammed into the passenger side of the beater he was driving. For weeks afterwards, he’d woken up in the middle of the night, reliving that moment. How the world had seemed to jump sideways as he bounced around the inside of his vehicle.

Memories of that moment came back to him when the New Madrid fault had ruptured. He’d taken his son with him that morning to visit an old acquaintance in Griffin, Indiana. The drive over, the visit, had been an enjoyable break from work for Jack, and an adventure for Lance. Driving home, Lance had chattered constantly about all the things he’d seen that day. They were talking about the bridge over the Wabash when the quake hit.

One moment, they were cruising along I-65, then the ground shot sideways like a table cloth yanked by some giant hand. He felt the pickup lift, a split second when everything seemed to float. Then the truck slammed back down with a squeal of tires, only to launch even more violently into the air as a second wave of energy traveled through the ground hit the road. The sideways motion caused the truck to land the second time on only two wheels. Jack tried to correct that second landing, but failed. Truck and occupants rolled to the right, slamming down first on the passenger side, then doing a corkscrewing roll and spin down the pavement.

Jack remembered a thundering series of impacts. There was a clear image of every loose item in the cab flying madly around, then there was pain in his left arm, followed by a moment of gray nothingness. Then he found himself upside down, restrained from falling by his seat belt. He tried moving his left arm, and the wave of pain from just the attempt told him he’d broken that arm. Lance, when he looked towards him, was calmly sitting in his seat, watching his father, a few minor cuts on his face the only sign the boy had just been through a major accident.

“I think my arm’s broke, so it’s gonna take me a minute to get down. You hang in there kiddo, I’ll have you out as soon as I can.”

Lance might only be nine, but his sense of humor caught his father’s pun. He smiled as he matched it. “Okay, Dad, I’ll just hang out here while you get things figured out.”

“My son, the future Jimmy Kimmel. What did I do to deserve this?” With only one arm, Jack was reduced to unbuckling himself and falling ingloriously to the former ceiling of his pickup cab. Down, he moved to examine his son. Beyond the visible scratches, he found one other wound, a bump on the side of his head that trickled a little blood. Lance moved his head and limbs freely when asked, so Jack judged it safe to release him from his seat.

Getting out of the truck was easy, none of the windows had survived the roll. What awaited them outside was far less easy to take. In the middle of the countryside, and early in the afternoon of a week day, traffic hadn’t been heavy. But there wasn’t one vehicle in sight that sat upright. Not far ahead, a compact car had endured a similar upending, but it had ended when the vehicle slammed into the concrete wall surrounding the end of a culvert. The cars rear end was now only a couple feet from its front end, everything between nothing but crumpled metal and shattered plastic. Beyond it, a tractor trailer lay on its side, a heavy-set man leaning against the cab as if it were the only thing keeping him upright. Further away, a column of black smoke rose from a vehicle that was already burning fiercely.

“You two all right?”

The question caught Jack off guard, but his instinctual attempt to spin around to face the questioner nearly sent him sprawling. He managed to stay vertical, and found himself facing a white haired black man in a sweater, his wrinkled face frowning with concern. “I think my arm’s broke, and my boy’s got a bump on his head, but we’re okay beyond that.”

The old man advanced. “I was a medic in Vietnam, so sit down and let me take a look at you two.”

Jack’s legs folded faster than he’d intended, the rough landing jolting another wave of pain from his arm. Then gentle fingers touched it, applying pressure that sent a spike of agony through his arm that caused Jack’s eyes to water.

“Yeah, arm’s broke all right. I’ve got nothing to splint it with, but give me a second and I’ll get it in a sling.”

Jack focused again, and saw old man slip his sweater off. “This is gonna hurt like hell, son, so you need to, grab my leg or something.” He didn’t exaggerate, and it was all Jack could do to not scream as his arm was moved one more time. Then it was immobilized inside a pouch made of the folded sweater held in place by the sleeves tied behind his neck.

“Thanks mister…”
“Name’s Virgil, Virgil Jeffers, and don’t call me mister. Every damn officer I ever served with insisted I call them ‘Mister’, and most of them were so ignorant they couldn’t have put a band-aide on a paper cut without screwing it up. Let’s see how your boy’s doing.”

Virgil moved over to Lance, who sat calmly while the old man examined him. He paid special attention to the bump before addressing his patient. “I want to put something on that cut you’ve got, but your Dad’s already got my sweater. Think you can spare your tee shirt so I can wrap your head and keep you from bleeding more?”

Lance gave the old man a broad smile as he stripped off his shirt. “Sure, Virgil…”

“Young man like you should call me Mr. Jeffers. Always good to show your elders respect, even if having a grown man calling another one ‘mister’ isn’t right.” Virgil folded the shirt, then carefully wrapped it about the boy’s head before knotting it on the side opposite the wound. He straightened with an effort and looked at Lance. “Not too tight, is it?”

“No, feels fine Mr. Jeffers. Thanks for helping us.” Lance stopped, looked at his father, then back at the old man. “Why’d you have a sweater on?”

Virgil gave the boy a smile. “Cause my wife always…” the smile faded, and the old man’s head turned to look back along the road to an older car that lay on its side, the post of a traffic sign sticking out of the driver’s side windshield. “I was wearing one because my wife always insisted on running the air conditioner whenever there wasn’t snow on the ground. I always felt like I was gonna freeze, but she’d complain about how hot the car was. You can ask your Dad about what us men do to get along with our wives…”

Virgil stopped, wiped the tears that had started running down his cheeks away, and shook his head. “She insisted on driving, after we filled up the last time. Said if I didn’t let her drive every once in a while, she’d forget how to. It should have been me, I should be in that car, not her. Lette was younger than me, she shouldn’t be……..”

It was all he could say, but it made clear what had happened. Jack put his good arm over the old man’s shoulder to remind him he wasn’t alone. The moment didn’t last long. Someone called out for a doctor, and Virgil stepped back. “Sounds like I’m needed. You two should get going, see if you can find a town or some place you can get taken care of by someone with the supplies to do the job right.”

“Shouldn’t we just wait here?”

Virgil had turned to walk away, but the question stopped him. “No, out here, in the middle of nowhere, it’s going to be a long time before anyone comes. Emergency services are going to have their hands full with folks in the towns. Sending someone out here isn’t going to be a priority for them.”

“Even if we call?” Jack reached for his back pocket, then remembered he’d had his phone on the charger, which meant it was in the truck. Virgil understood what he was searching for and shook his head.

“Don’t bother, I’ve already tried.” He pulled an old flip phone from his pants pocket and opened it. “I tried calling my daughter, and didn’t have a signal. I can’t imagine a quake strong enough to knock cars over left many cell towers standing, or that that much shaking did all the electronics much good.” The voice that had called for a doctor called again, this time more urgently, and Virgil turned away again. “Good luck you two, I need to go. Take care.”
“Thanks, Virgil, we will. You take care too. God bless you for your help.”

That brought a wave as their savior trudged down the road towards the shouts for help. Jack watched him go, then looked down to find his son looking up at him. “What do you think, son? Want to wait here and hope Virgil’s wrong?”

Lance gave him a broad smile. “No, let’s go home, Dad. If we don’t, Mom will yell at us for making her worry.” He pulled Jack’s old smart phone, the one he’d ‘inherited’ when Jack had upgraded. “I already checked, Dad. No bars, so we can’t call Mom or anyone else.”

“You sure? It’s gonna be a long walk if we try it.”

“Yeah, I’m okay, let’s just head home. Who knows, we might find a ride if we keep going.”

#

At first, Lance took the strange events as a license to be explore, forcing Jack to call his son back to his side again and again.

Then they passed the first bodies.

A black woman knelt over a pair of small, still forms. Someone had dragged them from the wreckage of the minivan that now rested under a toppled sign bridge and covered their faces. But they couldn’t cover the terrible injuries that had ended their young lives. And though some Good Samaritan had bound the worst of the young woman’s wounds, they could do nothing to for her crushed soul. So she knelt, head bowed and body shaking in silent weeping, watching over the children she could not save or abandon.

After that, Lance clung to Jack’s hand. Any sense of adventure was crushed more completely with every dead body they passed, every flaming wreck with no one around to watch it burn. They saw things they’d never imagined. Slabs of roadway fell near-vertical into open clefts in the ground, or were displaced sideways to stand as if they were islands on sections of embankment.

All around them, columns of smoke rose into the air. A huge one could be seen lifting from the direction of Poseyville, last town they’d passed through. Other, smaller ones rose from houses along the roadside. Not every house they saw was burning, but not one was intact. The quake had shaken ground and frame so hard most of the buildings looked like a tornado had passed over them. And the more they saw, the surer Jack was that getting a ride, or any sort of assistance, was a forlorn hope.

So they walked on, finding ways around wreckage and destruction on a seemingly impossible scale. Others joined them. They were young and old, every skin tone imaginable, but they were all united in their shock. Every face had the same hollow eyes, the same slack-jawed expression of stunned disbelief.

But all kept walking.

Jack had expected the day to grow warm, but the air gre increasingly hot and humid. It carried scents as familiar as spilled gasoline, and as strange as the sulfurous stink that rose from broad chasms in the roadway. They found a small crowd of people around and overturned soft drink vendors truck, and Jack’s parched mouth stopped him from passing the wreck. He took Lance to a car lying on its side and sat him down in the shade it offered.

His question “You thirsty?” brought a silent nodded reply. “Okay, stay here. I’m going to see if I can get us something to drink.”

That elicited a response from Lance. “Dad, look at them, they’re climbing up that truck, and you can’t climb with one arm.”

Jack looked over his shoulder and saw his son was right. “I’ll just ask one of the folks up on the truck to hand me something down.”

Lance stood and took Jack’s hand. “How about you help me get through the crowd, and I climb up to get us something to drink? I’m ten, Dad, not five. I can do this.”

There was nothing childish in his son’s voice, and for the first time, Jack saw something of the man he would grow up to be. Maybe I haven’t done so bad a job raising him. The thought flitted through Jack’s mind even as he ruffled his boy’s hair. “Okay, let’s get over there and see what’s available, shall we?”

No one stopped them from approaching the truck, and in close, the climb looked far less daunting than it had when Jack had first contemplated making it. Lance hardly slowed down, climbing the underside of the big vehicle like it was some gym set at his school. He gained the top and made his way to one of the now-open roll doors before dropping into the cargo box. He couldn’t have been out of sight for more than a minute, but after everything they’d seen that day, it felt like an eternity to Jack. Then an arm appeared, a six pack of sports drink clutched in its hand, and Lance’s head popped up beside it.

“Look, Dad, I managed to find some of the good stuff!”

Jack would have preferred bottled water, but gagging down that garish blue liquid would be better than being thirsty. “Good job, son, now get down here so we can both have something to drink.”

Lance pulled himself back onto the sill rail of the truck and gave a mock bow to his father. As he straightened up, Jack heard a sound unlike any he’d ever heard before. It was like a rushing wind combined with a deep groan like the Earth itself were in pain. Then the ground seemed to drop from under Jack’s feet.

Landing sent a wave of pain through Jack’s broken arm, and the world went momentarily gray. He was aware of the ground under him heaving and twitching like a living thing trying to shake him off. Then the motion stopped as suddenly as it had started, leaving nothing in its wake but the screams of people in fear. Jack levered himself up, but when he looked towards where Lance had been, he wasn’t there.

“Lance! Lance! Where are you?” No answering cry came, and Jack forced himself to his feet. A few of the people who’d been clustered around the truck stood too, but most huddled on the ground as if they feared rising might cause the ground to shake again. Lance wasn’t by the truck, and a frantic circle of it didn’t reveal him. Jack returned to where he’d started and grabbed a man who was still sitting.

“Did you see what happened to my son? He was the boy who was on top of the truck when the earthquake hit. Did you see what happened to him?”

All the reply he got was a frantic shake of the head, but a teenage girl in torn jeans squatting beside him spoke up. “I saw him fall backwards, I think he’s still inside the truck.”

As it lay, the sill of truck was a good ten feet above Jack’s head, meaning he couldn’t just pull himself up one-handed. “Miss, I can’t climb up, could you see if my son’s all right?”

“You want me to climb up there, with the ground shaking like it is? Are you crazy?”

The ground wasn’t shaking, and hadn’t for several minutes, but the experience of a major earthquake had undone the girl. Her eyes were huge, white showing wide around her pupils, and she clutched her arms about her legs like she wished she were back in the womb. A man Jack’s age in a UPS uniform stood up.

“I’ll climb up and see if your boy’s okay.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it.”

It only took moments for him to clamber up the truck and down into the open side, but to Jack, it seemed an eternity. Then Lance’s head appeared, and the fear that had gripped Jack’s heart receded. Jack could see that the improvised bandage around his was askew, and as he pulled himself out of the open door, it was clear his torso was covered in scratches. His movements had none of the energy they’d had earlier, and Jack, worried he’d injured himself, placed himself under his son as he climbed down. As soon as Lance’s feet touched the ground, Jack drew him into a one-armed bear hug.

“You scared the hell out of me, Lance! You okay?”

Seeing his son smile helped dispel the last of Jack’s worries. “Yeah, Dad, I’m okay…but I forgot the sports drinks!”

“Hey, kid, you looking for this stuff?”

Both of them looked up to find the UPS driver seated on the trucks sill, a six pack of the blue drink dangling down and another of the orange-colored variety setting next to him.

“Sure am! Thanks, mister.” Lance caught the drinks when they were dropped, then the ones his rescuer had claimed for himself. The driver followed them down at a slower pace, then addressed Jack.

“Found your boy lying on top of a bunch of this stuff. Looks like he must have taken a nasty tumble, but when I shook him, he woke up and knew where he was.”

Jack took the other man’s hand and shook it. “Thanks for going in there for my son.”

“No problem. I’ve got three kids at home in Carbondale, and I just hope someone’s there to help them if they need it.” He gave Lance’s shoulder a tap. “You’re brave, but you ought to be a bit more careful. Your Dad looked fit to claw his way through this truck to get to you.”

“I’m sorry, Dad, mister…”

“It’s Frank, and don’t worry about it. Now, we’ve got ourselves something to drink, so what say we enjoy it?”

The three of them moved into the shade of an overturned semi and found a spot amongst the mixed bag of people already seated there. Lance opened a bottle for sports drink for Jack, who found the blue concoction tasted as bad as he’d feared it would. But it was wet, and his parched throat welcomed it. Frank chugged a bottle of his orange drink down, then started a second before speaking again.

“Where you two headed?”
“Mount Vernon, but I don’t know how long it’s going to take to get there walking.”

Frank glanced at the sky and shook his head. “Even if the roads weren’t torn up, you wouldn’t make it in a day’s walk. It’s got to be sixty miles, and that doesn’t account for any detours you might have to make. Worse, I can’t imagine any of the bridges are still standing. The Wabash is deep enough for barge traffic, so folks aren’t gonna be crossing it unless someone sets up a ferry, or the Guard puts a pontoon bridge across it. Throw it all together, and it might take you four days, maybe a week, to get there on foot.” He stopped and looked at them. “I did two tours in Iraq, spent lots of time dealing with bad roads and detours. Lots of time walking too. You don’t think about how tired you can get walking until you’ve done a lot of it, or how slow you move.”

“Well, then the sooner we get to walking, the sooner we’ll get home. Right, Lance?”

“Right, Dad! I bet Mom’s worried about both of us, so we better get home. How about you, Mister Frank?”

Frank shook his head and raised one of his feet to show a sock worn through to a swelling blister. “Just my luck, I picked today to break in a new pair of shoes. It only took me a couple of miles to get these, so I’m going to stay here a while.”

Jack shook the hand of his son’s rescuer. “Frank, I can’t thank you enough for helping my boy.”

“Wasn’t nothing. You two take care of each other, hear?”

Jack and his son joined the thin stream of people walking past, a stream that now included people carrying make-shift bundles of possessions. One woman walked in the middle of a small gaggle of children, all of them red headed like her, with a bulging quilt slung over her shoulder. An old black man shuffled along, leaning on a cane, as a boy of eight or nine trudged beside him carrying a pillowcase stuffed with can goods and bottled water. All of them headed west, imitating the Sun’s march across the sky, but unlike the Sun, the humans had no clear path to follow.

A concrete culvert had collapsed into what had once been a small stream, but was now nothing but a muddy channel, the water gone from all but a few pools. Jack and Lance waded through ankle-deep mud surrounded by dead carp already beginning to stink in the hot, humid air. They followed other on a long trek around a gaping crevasse that could have swallowed a semi whole. The pavement ran into a low valley now filled with turbid water, its surface dotted with debris and dead bodies.

They had struggled around the edge of the ominous lake and regained the pavement when Lance let go of Jack’s hand, doubled over, and spewed. His boy wretched until he had nothing left the vomit, then after a couple of abortive efforts to bring up more, he managed to straighten up. Jack laid his hand on Lance’s shoulder, and the boy turned his head towards him, but he looked unfocused, as if he were in a daze.

“You okay?”

The question brought more animation to his son’s face. He managed a smile, but Jack could see it was forced.

“Yeah, Dad, I’m okay. We should keep walking, cause we won’t get home if we just stand here.”

“I think this heat’s a little too much for you, so we’re taking a few minutes break.” He pointed towards the remainder of the six-pack of sports drinks his son had brought with him. “You should have another one of them, get something back in your stomach to make up for everything you brought up. Come on, let’s both get some shade and take a breather.”

Shade proved to be more elusive than Jack had thought. The small stand of trees was still upright, but the ground around their trunks had split open near them from the shaking. Others had also had the same idea. Families and small groups of individuals clogged most of the few spots where the ground remained whole. Jack and Lance found an unoccupied spot that was mostly shaded and sat down together. As before, Lance opened bottles for both of them, but now he struggled to twist the tops off. This worried Jack, but he hoped it was just the an effect of the heat and continuous walking. Thirst overruled taste, and Jack was happy to gulp down the warm blue fluid. Lance took longer, sipping instead of drinking deep, and that worried Jack too. Then he heard a sound he hadn’t heard in a long time.

The deep thumping beat seemed to shake the still, humid air as it grew in volume. Jack’s eyes scanned the clear sky, but the silence around him amplified the noise of the rotor wash, making it seem the helicopter that generated it appear closer than it was. Then he saw it, a dark spot moving through the sky, tracing the same path he and everyone around him had been following. As it grew nearer, he became aware of voice, like that of some god calling down instructions from the sky.

“An emergency aid station has been established at the rest stop west of here at Milepost 57. Food, water and emergency medical services are available there. An emergency aid station has been…”

The message boomed out over and over as the copter passed overhead, fading to nothing as it moved away. Jack looked to his son and found he’d managed to down most of his sports drink.

“Feel any better, Lance? I think that rest area’s just a couple miles from here. If we can get there, we can get some real food, maybe even get a ride. Sound good?”

The smile was less forced than it had been, and his boy’s eyes held their old sparkle as he answered. “Sure does, Dad. Let’s get there so we can go home.”

They joined the other people moving out of the trees, back to the shattered ribbon of pavement, part of a growing stream of humanity headed west. Lance held his hand, and for the first mile, he kept up. Then he began to slow, and when Jack looked, he saw his son’s face had taken on the same dazed look it had held after he’d vomited. Then he stopped, fell to his knees, and brought up all of the sport drink he’d managed to swallow. Jack crouched beside him, an arm over his boy’s shoulder to let him know his father was there and to protect him from being tripped over. He was only partially successful in the latter effort, with both of them catching several unintended blows from the feet of passing people.

“Lance, let’s get over to the shoulder and out of this traffic. Think you can get over there?”

Lance’s head came up slowly, his eyes unfocused, but he tried to smile as he pushed himself upright. His voice, when he spoke, was slurred like he was drunk.

“Sure, Dad, I kin get o’er there, it’s not like I gotta walk ta…”

Then his son folded like someone had cut the strings of a puppet. Jack managed to get his good arm under him as he fell, easing him to the pavement as gently as he could, but when he rolled him face up, Lance’s eyes were closed and his breath labored.

“Lance, hey, you hear me son? Lance!”

He saw his son’s lips twitch, form a smile, and heard him murmur “It’s okay, Dad, let’s go home. Mom said she’d pick up a chocolate cake, and I want some. So let’s go home…” His voice trailed off, and his face lost all expression. Jack tried to lift his son, to carry him to help, but he didn’t have enough strength in his one good arm. He looked around, looked into the blank faces passing him, passing his son by.

“Help me! Something’s wrong with my son, and I can’t carry him. Please, help!”

People kept walking, ignoring him, unwilling to seeing the new tragedy unfolding in front of them. Jack opened his mouth to shout at them, and a hand came down on his shoulder. It was black, and dirty, and he could feel the the calloused strength of it through is shirt.

“What’s wrong wit yo boy?”

Jack turned his head to face a man who made him feel like he was in the presence of a mountain. The hand was connected to an arm covered in muscles bigger than those on Jack’s leg. It lead back to broad chest barely covered by a muscle shirt that peeked out from under a ‘high-vis’ vest like those worn by highway workers. The face, under a shaved head, didn’t look like one that smiled, but now, it was filled with concern.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with him. We were going home when our truck got flipped by the quake. I broke my arm, but Lance, my son, seemed fine. We’d been walking for a while, then he started vomiting, and he just passed out. The helicopter said there was an emergency aid station up ahead. Can you help me carry him there, please?”

“Sure, I kin get yo boy there.”

That was all he said before scooping Lance up he weighed nothing and setting off at a trot, leaving Jack to scramble to keep up. As he jogged along, the huge black man chanted “Out the way, out the way! Gotta a sick kid here, out the way, damn it!” and the crowd parted for him like the Red Sea for Moses. They kept that pace up for most of a mile, each running step sending a jag of pain through Jack’s broken arm. Then the rest station came into view and the black man broke into a sprint, leaving jack floundering in his wake.

What he finally stumbled into, gasping for breath and in such pain his vision was graying out, was a scene of complete chaos. None of the buildings of the rest stop had survived the quake, but the parking lot had held together. It was covered in awnings, each surrounded by people trying to gain access to whatever each awning offered. Behind them all stood a pair of tents sporting a white circle and red cross that must be the emergency medical facilities. Jack pressed towards them, ignoring everything else.

Each entrance was guarded by a pair of National Guard soldiers in riot gear carrying an automatic weapon. Surrounding the was a churning mass of humanity. Some struggled to get into the tents, shouting various complaints about injuries real or imagined. Others stood, clinging to each other, some with faces set in fear, others weeping. Jack spotted the high-vis vest and smooth black head of his savior amongst them and shoved his way forward heedless of his own pain or any he inflicted on others. He got to him, and surprised himself by yanking the big man physically around to face him.

“Where’s my son? What’d they do with him?”

The way his eyes wouldn’t meet Jack’s said more than his words. “Yo boy’s inside. Doc’s took him right in, said he needed lookin’ at right ‘way.” He saw the big man’s Adam’s apple move as he swallow before continuing. “He din’t look good. I run fast as I could, but he’s…” Jack saw tears start streaming down that hard face, and feared the worst. But this man had done what he couldn’t, and he had to tell him that.

“It’s all right. Whatever happens, it’s all right. You did what I couldn’t for my boy, and I’ll never forget that. Thank you for helping me, for helping us.”

He hadn’t planned to embrace the other man, but he found those huge arms around him, heard the other man trying not to cry. All of it came to him through a wave of pain from his broken arm, now crushed between the two of them. He must have gasped without knowing it, because he felt the pressure release, and through a hazed vision, he saw shock on that stony visage.

“Yo, you bleedin’! Hey, someone, this guy’s bleedin’!”

That was the last thing Jack remembered. His next memory was of waking under a shiny tan plastic ceiling. His left arm felt wrong, far too heavy, and his right had something stuck to it. He managed to lift his head enough to find his left arm encased in a bright blue plastic cast, and his right arm sprouted a pair of IV feeds. Then everything came back to him. The wreck, Lance becoming sick before passing out, the run to the aid station. Jack tried to sit up and the room seemed to twist around him in a gut-wrenching spiral of disorientation. Jack didn’t vomit despite his stomach’s protests, and as his head cleared, he became aware he wasn’t the only one suffering. He shared what he now realized was a large inflatable tent with a dozen other patients. He heard moans of pain coming from at least two other forms, but some of them lay frightening still, as if they’d given up or were so close to deaths door that they could no longer express their pain. Only one other person, a young woman with both legs immobilized in casts, sat upright and awake. She favored him with a smile.

“Good to see you’re awake. They brought you in here last night and had a nurse checking on you every half hour until sometime after midnight, so you must have been in a pretty bad way.”
“Did they say anything about a boy, my son? I was hurt when my truck went over, but he got real sick on the walk here. Has anyone said anything about him?”

She shrugged. “Nope, nobody said anything. A big black guy named Chaz came by after they brought you in, looked like he wanted to talk to you, but when he saw you was out, he left. Haven’t seen him since.”

At least Jack had a name to connect with the man who’d done so much for Lance. But he knew nothing about his son, and when he swung his legs out of bed, dizziness hit him even stronger. He was trying to push through it when a strong pair of hands pressed him back. They were connect to an earnest young man in military fatigues who made it clear he was not going to allow Jack out of bed.

“Sir you need to rest, You lost a lot of blood, and your BP is still low. You try standing, and all you’re going to do is end up on your ass on the floor, if you’re lucky!”

“Blood loss? How’d I…”

The young man, Jack saw he had his name, P. Killian, stenciled over his left breast pocket, firmly pushed him back as he replied. “You had a broken arm, and somebody treated it. But then you did something stupid that caused the bones shift. They punctured the skin, and nicked a vein in the process. Chart says you nearly bled out. We’ve put two units of blood into you already, and I’m going to be hanging another unit here in a few minutes. So just relax and let us get you stable.”

“Listen, I just want to know what happened to my son, a ten year old boy named Lance. He was sick, unconscious, when he was brought in. He had dark blond hair and he had a blue tee shirt wrapped around his head to bandage a scrape he’d got on his head. Have you seen a boy who looks like that?”

Killian got Jack’s legs covered before answering. “No, I can’t say I have. Which doctor did you speak to?”

Jack motioned towards his broken arm. “I couldn’t carry him with this. A big guy named Chaz helped me, he picked Lance up and carried him. I had a hell of a time keeping up.”

That drew a sharp look. “Don’t tell me, let me guess: you ran with a broken arm in a make-shift sling?” Jack opened his mouth to defend his actions, but didn’t get the chance. “No wonder it was so messed up. You got a couple good-sized holes in your arm where the bone came through the skin, then worked around as you ran. I’m amazed you didn’t drop in your tracks, but adrenaline can make the human body do some incredible things. How about this: I’ll ask around after I take care of you and everyone else in this tent. If you’re son’s here, someone will know where he is. He might not be here, though. We had our first evac flight at sunrise, taking folks off to a hospital in Indianapolis that survived the quake. There was some talk of putting you on that flight, but too many folks were ahead of you on the triage list. You say he was brought in unconscious?”

“Yes, he’d gotten sick, vomited a couple of times, then he just kind of keeled over.”

“Okay, I’ll see what I can find out. It might take a while for me to get back, so don’t go wandering around, hear me? I find you’ve dragged my IV stand to another tent, I’ll kick your ass just for principle.”

Young Killian worked his way around the tent, tending to the other patients, then returned to swap the now empty blood bag for a full one. He hung it, swapped out the bag of clear fluids for something else, and then injected something into the IV line. “This is for the pain, so you might feel a little drowsy. Don’t worry about your boy. I promise I’ll find out what happened to him and if I can’t get back to tell you, I’ll make sure someone else does. Rest now, get your strength back for your son.”

Jack felt a wave of almost blissful relief sweep over him, washing away pain he hadn’t even realized was nagging him. It also swept him away from that dismal room, off to a place where Lance sat beside his bed, a smile on his face. It felt safe there, alone in that room with his son, but something told him it couldn’t last. His last memory of the quiet space was of his son taking his hand, smiling, and saying “Dad, you need to wake up, we gotta go home.”

It was early morning when he awoke, Jack could tell from the warm quality the light streamed into the tent through plastic window beside his bed. Several of the beds around him were empty, including the one that had been occupied by the young woman in the twin casts. Jack hoped they were empty because the people who’d been in them had been discharged, and not because they’d died. A figure in olive drab entered the tent, but her coffee-colored skin and short frame was nothing like Killian’s. She saw Jack watching her and smiled.

“Good morning, Mr. Everrets. How do you feel today?”

Jack rarely heard himself called ‘Mr. Everrets’. that was what folks called his Dad, so it took him a beat to respond. “I’m feeling good. How long was I asleep?”

“I wouldn’t know. You were asleep when I came on shift at midnight, and it’s just coming up on 6 AM, so at least six hours. Do you know what time it was when you went to sleep?”

“It was light outside…and a guy named Killian was here. He promised to find out about my son, Lance. Do you know if he did?”

“Killian? Pat Killian? He had the afternoon shift yesterday, so you must have been out for close to twelve hours. And no, I didn’t talk to him, so he couldn’t have told me anything about your son. Your son’s name was Lance Everrets? I can go ask, but what was he admitted for?”

Jack told his story again, and like Killian before her, the young woman had nothing to tell him. “I’ll ask the head nurse after I finish my rounds, but I haven’t seen a boy who looks like that. Now, let’s get your vitals checked so I can get on with my work…”

Her uniform had ‘J. Ochoa’ stenciled over the left breast pocket, and she went about her duties with a brisk but friendly attitude. When she taken her final reading, Ochoa rolled up her blood pressure cuff and stowed it away. “You’re vitals are normal now, Mr. Everrets. You might not remember me, but I was the attending nurse when they brought you in. Your blood pressure was so low, the doctors were afraid you heart would stop. We were pumping blood into you as fast as we could! It’s good to see you’ve recovered so well. Maybe they’ll transfer you out today.”
“I’m not going any where until I find out about my son, miss. I’m sorry, but I have to know how he is, and where he is. Can you please get someone to find out and let me know?”

“I will, sir. I’ll check with the head nurse as soon as I can, and I promise to make sure you know as soon as possible.”

She left, to be replaced by another young woman who asked if Jack felt up to eating, Just the question made his stomach growl, and he had wolfed down two bowls of oatmeal without tasting them. The coffee accompanying them swept the last haziness from his mind and left him feeling impatient. That impatience grew as the light did outside and no one came to tell him about Lance. Jack felt like one of this insects suspended in amber, like time had stopped around him and nothing could ever break him free of this eternal state of not knowing. The tent door opened with the soft swish Jack had become familiar with, and a middle-aged white woman with a severe face entered. She walked up to Jack’s bed and swept a cold eye over him.

“I’m head Nurse Alice Fenton, and I’ve had no less than two of my nurses come to me asking for information on your son. We don’t have a Lance Everret listed as in our care, and there’s nobody matching the description you gave listed as a JD either.”

“JD?”

“Sorry, medial slang, ‘John Doe’. I haven’t asked anyone to check the morgue tent because you’ve insisted your son was just suffering from a fainting spell, is that right?”

Morgue? Jack’s mind shied away from the idea that his son could be dead. There was no way Lance could be dead. “No, he can’t be dead. He just fainted, maybe from th heat. Is there any chance he could have been discharged while I was unconscious? They tell me I was in a bad way when they brought me in, so is it possible he could have been released then?”

Nurse Fenton shook her head. “Both of my people told me your son was a ten year old boy, and there’s no way a minor like that would be discharged without a parent of guardian to take care of them. I can go double check, make sure he wasn’t transferred to Indianapolis General for further care, but if that didn’t happen, then I don’t know what happened to your son. Give me an hour, Mr. Everrets, to make a few calls and find out for you. I hope I can get you an answer, because I also understand you’ve refused to leave if you can’t find out, and as far as the doctors are concerned, you’re fit to be discharged.”

Jack started to object, and she held up a hand to stop him. “I didn’t say I was going to kick you out without your son, or at least the knowledge of where you can find him. It’s close to lunch time, so I will expect you to eat, but hopefully by this afternoon, I’ll have the information you’re requesting and we can get you onto one of the ‘duce-and-a-half’ taxi runs to the Wabash so you can get on your way home. I’ll ask one of my male nurses to help you get dressed. Your pants and shoes are in a bin under your bed, and I’m sure we can scrounge up an OD green tee shirt to replace that blood-soaked shirt they cut off you when you arrived.”

The man who helped Jack get dressed looked like he’d blow away in a stiff breeze. A pale, almost whey-colored face atop a slender trunk, arms and legs that looked more like sticks than human limbs. But for all that, his grip was firm and he didn’t waver as Jack leaned on him to get his pants up. He was also silent. No chatter, gossip or even encouragement came from his lips, and when Jack thanked him for helping, all he got in the way of a reply was an inarticulate grunt as he walked out the door.

Inaction followed, and the longer he was left to stew, the more restless Jack became. Only two other patients were in the tent with him, and both of them were as impatient as Jack to be out of bed and home. Nurse Fenton’s arrival brought all of their attention into focus, but her frowning face stilled any questions. She walked up to Jack and guided him to the exit. “I have something I need you to look at before we can release you, Mr. Everrets. Please come with me.”

#

The truck that took Jack to the Wabash was a dark green, hulking monster. The bed was high above the ground, even with his eyes, and there was no easy way for a one armed man to climb aboard. A pair of guardsmen helped him aboard, one pulling him up from the bed while the other stabilized him as he struggled to get a foot in the stirrup built into the rear gate. His time in the emergency center had thinned out the number of people trying to cross into Illinois, but the big truck was still over half full when it pulled away. The slate seat bit into Jack’s ass, and while he’d been given some painkillers to help with his fracture, he felt each bump they hit.

There were a lot of bumps. The driver followed I-65 for only a short distance before swinging off to churn through the fields alongside it. The road, where it was visible, was now nothing but a string of fractured patches of pavement setting at whatever odd angle the shifting ground had left it at. The closer they got to the Wabash, the more disrupted the ground was. Broad openings in the ground rimmed with incongruous banks of brilliantly clean sand had been hurriedly filled in, but the dip left behind sent the truck bouncing like a wild horse being ridden for the first time. Other spots where covered in water that rose almost to the bottom of the truck bed.

Much of the ground was a soupy, muddy mass that slowed their huge conveyance to a crawl and caused the engine exhaust to rise from an uncomfortable growl to a deafening howl. They were grinding their way through one such patch when the guardsman who’d stayed in the bed gave a shout.

“Looks like you folks are in luck. The ‘Cannonball’ is on this side of the river, so you can board right away.”

Jack raised his head, bringing himself out of the hazy place he’d let the painkillers take him to. What he saw was not promising. The earthquake had caused the Wabash to spread. Trees, still covered in green leaves, rose from the murky river water. Between the water and the muddy ground they now navigated was an low embankment topped with a decaying strip of tarmac. Like the interstate, it too was torn asunder in many spots, but the section the truck aimed for was whole and level. Beyond it was a craft Jack had never seen, or imagined, in his life. Six big rubber rafts stuck out of each side of a broad metal deck, and the whole thing was flanked by pairs of identical rafts. These had men in them, and big outboard motors fitted to the rear. People were already standing on the deck, part of a small crowd that was boarding by walking across metal grates that stretched out from the embankment.

“They can’t be serious. We’re supposed to cross a river as big as the Wabash on that thing?”

“It’s okay, Dad. Look at all those people getting on board. They trust it, so we should too. I want to get home, so let’s go.”

Boarding the floating contraption proved to be far less trying than getting down from the truck. A teen aged boy had to help the guardsman get Jack to the ground, then a few steps across the tarmac that ended in a shaky walk over the grating to the deck. People flopped down where ever they could, but Jack knew sitting down would mean a fight to rise again. He stood watching as the last few passengers came aboard and the gratings were pulled ashore. Someone shouted an order and the motors revved to life.

As they backed them away from the land, Jack saw more evidence that they were now floating over what had once been dry land. A power line stretched out, growing closer and closer to the surface of the water before dropping into it by a roof that protruded barely a foot from the water. Then the last trees dropped away and they motored across the muddy expanse of the new Wabash. A pair of concrete towers, their tops ragged, marked where the I-65 bridge had once stood. Of the mighty steel arch they’d driven across, not a trace remained.

Reaching the Illinois side of the river entailed navigating a maze of trees and ruined riverside houses, a task made difficult by the surprisingly strong currents present on that side of the Wabash. Men in guard uniforms waded chest-deep in the water to bring lines that were used to pull their improvized ferry snug to an identical section of floating decking. It was joined to two more, and beyond them the ground rose to a shelf that backed against a steep hillside. Jack said a silent thanks for not having to walk another flexing stretch of narrow metal walkway as he joined the other passengers headed ashore.

More guard members stood at the land end of the cobbled-together pier, directing Jack and everyone else along a rough path that carried them to a zig-zag path up the hill. A mass of tents stood around the top of the path. Many were identical to the inflated shelter Jack had awoken in after he’d passed out, but the others were as individual as the groups that had set them up. Red Cross volunteers handed out clothing and what they called a ‘disaster pack’. Jack took the one that was thrust into his hand, and found it held hand sanitizer, disposable wash clothes and such day-to-day necessities as a roll of toilet paper. The guard had a pair of tent where food was being dished out in the form of MRE’s. Jack’s stomach growled, and after a brief stay in line, he found himself eating a package of chili so bland that he wished he could ask for hot sauce. It went down, though, and he felt more awake with food in his belly.

After a quick visit to a latrine, Jack tried to find out how he could leave the encampment. Indiana, he soon found out, had been able to spare guard vehicles to move quake victims without vehicle. Illinois, one guard member told him, had all of its vehicles tied up either moving people out of the wreckage that had been Chicago, or evacuating East St. Louis. The Mississippi had been dammed by an uplifted section of land just north of the spot where it had joined the Ohio. The backed up water spread north, and people on both sides of it were fleeing as quickly as they could. There was, however, an impromptu taxi service made up of locals with four wheel drive vehicles who were hauling victims to some of the larger local towns.

The Sun was setting by the time Jack found someone headed to Mount Vernon. He joined eight people in the bed of a Ram with a jacked-up suspension and more bondo holding it together than steel. His arm was throbbing again as he was helped in, so Jack popped another pain pill and relaxed as well as he could while being hauled through more scenes of disaster.

They arrived well after sunset, driving into a town where few building still stood and roads were paths through the rubble. All around them, fires burned. Some of them had people crouching beside them, while others appeared to be nothing more than the remains of the conflagration that had consumed a building. Their path they took went nowhere near Jack’s house, and ended in a broad spot Jack realized had once been the parking lot for the county court house. Nothing of that impressive old Depression-era building stood, only a mound of jumbled rubble marked where it had once been.

With no way to find his house in the unrelieved darkness, Jack found an intact portion of the lawn and laid down. Lance sat beside him, looking out over the shadowy devastation that surrounded them, and Jack wished he could shield his son from the horror of seeing everything he’d ever known in ruins. But there was nothing he could do, no magic he could work to make everything right again. That disappointment was the last thing in his mind when he fell asleep.

Dawn came early, and Jack awoke to find his son sitting beside him, his face turned towards the Sun, a smile on his lips.

“Hey, you get any sleep kid?”

Lance looked towards him. “Sure, Dad, I got plenty of sleep. Sleeps not a problem any more for me. Can we go home now? I want to see Mom, see how she’s doing.”

“Sure thing. I want to get home too before your Mom hunts me down for not calling to let her know how we’re doing.”

Getting up from flat on his back one handed was harder than Jack imagined. He managed it, discovering aches he hadn’t had the night before. The clear dawn light revealed a scene even more devastated than he’d imagined the night before. Every building around the court house had been knocked down, as had most of those he could see. But with the knowledge of where he was, Jack knew he could find his way home. So he set out, Lance beside him as he had been these past days. Neither of them spoke as they made their way down streets they’d both known for all their lives, now stranger than any foreign city. Into the residential areas, past the baseball diamond where Lance had played and people now camped. The charred remains of the local convenience store told them they were close to home. Down the street lined with destroyed homes, down to the end where their home stood. Most of it was still standing, but the roof had collapsed into the interior, leaving nothing but a shell of the place that had been home. But there was a familiar tent standing on the front lawn that told Jack his wife had survived.

He started forward, but Lance didn’t move. “Come on, son, Mom’s still asleep. Let’s give her a surprise she’ll like and let her know we’re home.”

Lance gave him a smile. “It’s okay Dad. Thanks for getting me home. Tell Mom I’m sorry, that I wanted to come home, but I couldn’t leave that tent in Indiana.”

“What are you talking about, Lance? Come on, let’s go home.”

“I can’t go home, Dad. Remember, I died in that tent in Indiana. You cried so much, I couldn’t leave you to go home alone, so I stayed with you. But I have to go now. I love you and Mom, take care of her. Don’t forget me, Dad, but don’t blame yourself.” Lance began to fade, becoming more ethereal, an outline of a boy, not a boy in reality. Then he was gone, and in that moment, Jack remembered the cool, dark interior of the morgue tent. The rows of silent forms covered in tarps. One small one that Nurse Fenton had uncovered to reveal Lance’s still face. She’d told him why he’d died. How the blows to his head, the wreck and the fall into the beverage truck, had damaged a blood vessel in his brain. It had burst from the strain of walking, and he had been dead before he’d made it to the operating table.

Jack’s legs folded under him, and his head tilted down, he began to weep. As he did, like an echo of a voice came a single thought: You got me home Dad. Thank you.

It wasn’t enough, but Jack accepted it would have to do.

Desert death

The Greyhound to Los Banos, Nevada hadn’t been a ‘real’ bus, more like a big minivan. But George was glad to be out of Oregon. He’d worried the police might sweep down on him since he’d killed a serial killer in Eubanks, Oregon. You didn’t just murder a local without consequences, and he’d expected some sort of bulletin for the prime suspect. Then again, as far as the world was concerned, George Ishkowa was dead. That, and his limited interaction with the other residents of the hostel, were probably what had saved him.

A story on one of the supernatural ‘conspiracy theory’ sites he frequented brought him to Los Banos. People spoke of disappearances. Single people passing through the small town in the middle of the desert sometimes vanished in the night. Then hikers had discovered a body.

That body, a man in his early twenties, had exhibited signs of hard work in excruciating conditions. Blistered hands, barked shins, a partially-healed cut across the scalp like he had slammed his head into something before his death from dehydration. The stomach had reportedly been empty, as if the man had been worked for days without food. The hikers had found the body beside a huge saguaro cactus, the matriarch of a grove that stood in the midst of complete nothingness.

More outlandish were the second-hand stories of the search by local authorities for traces of how the body had come to be where it was. Supposedly no one could find a track anywhere near the body, but when dogs had been brought in, they had struck a trail. The scent they traced had taken their handlers miles through the desert. At first, it had been a meandering path, as if the dead man had stumbled in a confused daze before dying, then it became an almost rule-straight line as if he’d known precisely where he was going. The trail headed away from Los Banos towards the desolate Eugene Mountains, but by the end of the first day, the there was no sign of any dwelling or anywhere the man might have come from. Then, when the search was taken up the next morning, the dogs only went a few miles before stopping. They had not stopped for a creek, of which there were surprisingly few, nor some other place where a scent might be lost by a dog. No, the report spoke of the dogs, eager for the trail, suddenly stopping, first to snarl, then to whimper in fear of something their handlers could not see. Trackers attempted to find a cause for the strange behavior, but no bear or other predator, nor any sign that a similar animal had been present, was found. Stranger still, it had proven impossible to persuaded the dogs to go further.

The bus driver stopped, but as George prepared to step off, the stout woman’s voice had come from behind him. “Are you sure you want to get off here?”

“Yeah, I hear the hiking in the desert around here is fantastic.”

“You’re going out in that and hike…for fun?”

George looked back, found a look of incredulity fit to match the tone that question had been uttered in, and nodded. “What can I say, I guess I’m just a glutton for punishment.”

The driver stared at him, mouth hanging open, then shook her head like a dog trying to shoo a fly away. “As my Dad would have said it, whatever floats your boat. I guess for you, it’s tramping around in the middle of the Backside of Hell.”

George caught the emphasis, the almost explicit capitalization of those words. “Why do you call it that?”

The driver waved her hand as if trying to encompass everything outside her front windshield. “This place used to be a big mining district. As long as there was gold, or silver, or something else valuable to mine, they’d go out into the desert hoping to ‘strike it rich’. Most of them ended up going home with nothing to show for their time here but a broken back and lungs full of rock dust.” She favored George with a knowing smile. “My granddad prospected around here, just before he went off to World War Two. He always said almost getting killed by kamikaze attacks saved him from dying for sure in this desert. If that doesn’t tell you how bad this place is, I don’t know what will.”

It wasn’t the answer George had hoped for, but it gave him someplace to start. He gave the woman a smile, then took the final step and went to find the truth of what was happening in Los Banos.

#

The truth turned out to be elusive. George was able to find out the dead man was named Frank Ingram, but what had brought him to Los Banos, or how he’d ended up in the desert, were as much of a mystery as the day he’d stepped off the bus. With no clues, George decided to see if he could reach the spot where the dogs had stopped.

The problem was, nobody normally went where he needed to go. The more he thought about it, the more that fact stood out. In a desert seemingly filled with hiking and ATV trails, a section that people avoided was strange. So, when he heard that a pair of men taking their ‘off-roader’ out for a test near where he wanted to go, he hitched a ride. For George, with his undead body, carrying enough water to get out of the desert wasn’t a problem, but he carried a pair of large water bottles to convince his hosts he wasn’t going out to commit suicide. They were roaring along, George feeling like he should be hanging onto something to keep from rattling around the back seat of the crew cab, when the phone GPS chimed.

“Hey, HEY! Can you stop?”

Even shouting, he wasn’t sure he’d been heard until the the truck ground to a stop. Both of the men in the cab stared at him. The driver was the one who finally spoke. “You want to get out here?”

“Umm, yeah, why?”

The stare grew even more incredulous. “You don’t know?”

Maybe it was hoping for too much, that these two would have some clue as to what was happening out here in the desert, but George asked anyway. “No. What’s wrong with getting out here?”

“You didn’t hear? Some guy was found, not too far from here, like….dead.”

So much for getting information from these two… “Yeah, I heard about that. I was kind of hoping to find out why he was out here.”

That drew a pair of blank stares before the driver spoke up. “Why?”

George pinched his nose and fought the desire to shout out his frustration with people who had a level of callousness that allowed them to ignore the fact that someone had died in this vast emptiness. It wasn’t an easy struggle, so he grabbed the door handle and let himself out.

#

The rising breeze gave George his first hint he was near where he wanted to go. It had begun to pick up as the Sun set behind the mountains, and as it did, the rattling of plastic flapping came to George’s ears. The sound that led him towards the cactus was the yellow police tape, still strung in place around the spot where the dead man had been found. The winds had blown any tracks that might have remained away, leaving no clues for George to follow. Some CSI wannabe had neatly outlined where the body had lain in more police tape, this staked tight to the ground. That was where he sat down, looking over the shape in the fading light towards the surrounding desert.

The saguaro was now little more than a dark outline against the fading sky, but in all that vast space, it would have been the only real shade from a pitiless Sun. George laid his hand on what would have been the chest of the dead body and wondered what his final moments were like. Had he cursed those who had brought him to this point? Had he felt at peace for escaping from whatever hell had made this desolate spot seem better? The breeze died with the light, and in the silence that followed, George felt a presence. It had none of the violence, not a bit of the intense anger he’d encountered in other spirits. No, here he felt relief, like at the end, the man who had breathed his last here was at peace with his decisions. George tried to reach out, to draw that spirit to him, but all he gathered was an impression of a hole in a hillside. The spirit fled as George tried to press it for more memories of that place, leaving nothing but an impression of terror in its wake.

Overhead, the sky had become that endless black you only see far from people. The constellations, so easy to pick out where the sky never reached such a profound darkness, were lost in a sea of stars. All about him, the faint rustling of small creatures coming out to live their lives could be heard. George rose to find the ground about him lite bright by starlight, the hills standing out like cardboard silhouettes against the sky-glow. “Well, fuck it, guess there’s no point in sitting around waiting for sunrise.”

George soon found out that walking through a desert by star light was far harder than he’d thought. Slopes were far more difficult to judge. Soft spots in the sand looked solid. Twice, he stepped on rattle snakes that struck at him and connected, reminding him that being undead had advantages. Through it all, he kept moving. The sunrise found him in the foothills of the Eugene’s.

The impression he’d gotten from the departed spirit drew him leftward, towards a flat-topped hill that would have been a mountain anywhere else. He was closer, but still not at its base, when the Sun went down. That night brought other lights besides the stars. A string of lights led from a low building into an opening so deep the lights diminished into nothingness. Somewhere in the darkness a generator clattered as it kept them all working.

George saw a shadow move across the lights and crouched low before advancing again. Another form moved in the darkness, and the cold glint of a steel barrel revealed an automatic weapon in the hands of a guard. George froze, instinctive caution taking control of his actions. Then he remembered that he was dead, that no mortal weapon could harm him, and he moved closer. In close, he heard the screech of a wheel in need of lubrication before the the cart it was fitted to appeared. Four men shoved it towards the mouth of the tunnel under the direction of a guard armed with an AR-15. All of the men on the cart had the painfully thin frames of people worked too hard with too little food.

George saw that what they pushed was an old-fashioned mining cart, like something out of an old Western movie. It ran on tracks that ended on a raised platform. Beneath the end sat a large dump truck. As he watched, they brought their load to the end and with a heave that took all four of them, emptied it into the truck bed. For a moment, the four figures stood together, leaning against the cart they’d been pushing like it was the only thing holding them up. A voice echoed off the rocks, too faint to distinguish the words, but the tone made the meaning as clear as the gesture the guard made with his weapon. He wanted the laborers to get back to their back-breaking work. They shambled, two to a side, around the cart and began shoving. One man slipped, fell, and the man with him stopped pushing to help him rise. The cart slowed, and the guard came around it. Now the voice was loud enough for George to make out.

“Get your fuckin’ asses back to work! Now, damn it, or I’ll put a bullet in both your worthless skulls!”

The two men rose, one with the other’s arm over his shoulder, and together they threw themselves against the cart. It’s speed rose, but evidently not enough for the guard.

“Faster, damn it! We ain’t got all night. That truck loads before sunrise, and none a you worthless bastard will get fed if it ain’t, hear me?”

The cart picked up speed, but from what George could see, none of those pushing it had been fed regularly for days. “That sick fuck probably takes away their food as often as he can.” he muttered to himself as he started moving towards the entrance to the mine.

He slid down into a low gully and a form appeared before him. This form had no gun, no defined shape at all, just a black blob that stood between him and the mine. A voice like an echo from the grave addressed him.

La muerte te espera.”

George had had enough Spanish-speaking friends to get the jist of what the spirit was saying to him, that death awaited him. He rummaged around his rudimentary Spanish to come up with a reply. Ya estoy muerto, amigo.”

The form moved closer, resolved into what might once have been a handsome young man before someone had savagely beaten him. The head tilted one way, then another, then nodded.

Sí es usted. Vienes a vengarnos?”

The meaning of that last sentence was unclear to George, the earnestness with which it was said led George to conclude this spirit wanted what was happening to stop.

Los detengo, lo prometo.

The outline faded, leaving nothing but a whispered reply behind. “Bueno.”

That was when George saw the gully was really a burial pit. A skull lay at his feet, and scattered around him lay others, along with all the other bones of the human body. Many of the skulls were damaged, partially crushed or missing the entire top like they had exploded. A low snarl caught his attention, and George saw a partial corpse move as if it were alive before a skunk emerged from it dragging a string of entrails. Blessing the undead body that didn’t vomit, he moved to the far edge of the pit and climbed it as steathfully as he could.

He saw the two guards from earlier had moved, and one of them was headed his way. Had he made some noise that caught the man’s attention? George slipped back down the pit and did his best to disappear into the darkness.

George hadn’t needed to worry. As he watched, the guard stopped at the edge of the pit, unzipped, and pissed into the open grave. The casual indifference of that act of disrespect made up George’s mind about what he would do.

This man would die, as would all those who worked with him.

Bladder relieved, the guard turned his back on the grave and began zipping himself up. He never finished. George was up as soon as his back was turned. Before he could react to the sound behind him, George grabbed the man’s head and snapped his neck with a twist so violent the face turned towards him. He saw the man’s mouth open in shock, then go slack as he died. An AK knock-off on a web strap hung from the corpse’s shoulder. George took it before kicking the body into the pit that held so many innocents while hoping the man he’d just killed was already in the hottest pit of Hell.

Now, with one of their own missing, it was only a matter of time before the guards figured out something was going on. George abandoned caution and advance on the mine opening. His path took him past one of the structures he’d seen from a distance. Up close, he saw it was little more than a crude framework of 2X4’s, bare on the outside and covered on the inside with sheet rock. The rhythmic creaking of springs and exaggerated moans coming from inside told him not all the prisoners here were men slaving their lives away in the mine. He kept moving, hoping he could free the men in time to rescue whatever woman was being raped later.

The tunnel stretched further than George anticipated, but luck was with him. Nobody stood guard at the entrance, nor did he encounter any guards until he could hear the sound of hammers on rock. He crouched down, advancing with more caution, until he saw the outline of a man sitting in a niche carved into the rock. He lounged back, his butt resting on what looked like an old sofa cushion, another one behind his back, his head facing down the tunnel. George straightened and advanced with what confidence he could muster, hoping to bluff his way up to the guard, and beyond.

He didn’t need to worry. Here, the noise of excavation was loud enough George couldn’t hear his own footfalls. He unslung the AK, and the motion must have caught the guard’s attention. He started to turn, but the rifle’s stock slamming into the side of his head laid him out cold. An AR stood by his crude guard post, and George collected it. He could see the rock face now, a dozen emaciated men wielding hammers and picks beat the stone, trying to break pieces off. Behind them, his back turned to George, stood the guard who’s threatened the cart crew. He dashed towards the man, but one of the workers saw George’s rush and his wide-eyed gape gave him away.

The sound of gunfire in that confined space was like thunder. George felt something hitting him, but no pain. He hit the guard running, sending both of them sprawling. George tried to push himself away, to get some room to swing, but he didn’t get the chance. Seeing their tormentor down, the prisoners attacked. The first hammer blow sent brains all over George’s face, and he narrowly escaped being struck himself as other blows rained down on the now-dead guard. Several minutes filled with mutter curses and the grunts of men swinging as hard as they could passed, then the fury drained from the imprisoned. They stood in a rough circle, panting from their efforts, as George pushed himself to his feet. He let his eyes take in the men about him. Most were Spanish, but some weren’t. He addressed them all, hoping someone in the group would understand him.

“We need to get out of here, now. Those shots are going to tip off the guards outside that something’s up.”

One of the Spanish men stepped forward, a smile on his face and a Midwestern accent on his lips. “Don’t worry, they shoot folks in here all the time. Usually, they say we’re getting to ‘uppity’ or not working fast enough. Sometimes, I think they do it because they’re bored.” He stopped talking and held out a hand. George took it, and felt a strong grip behind that calloused hand. “I came down here from Duluth, from a job in an iron mine no less, to do some hiking. Never imagined I’d go from driving a dump truck in an open pit mine to a slave in some unlicensed uranium mine.”

George looked around, the inborn fear of radiation overcoming him, and the man in front of him chuckled.

“Don’t worry, kid, it’s not radioactive enough in here to fry your nuts or anything. Some of these guys are going to need checking out, but they’ll need to be in a hospital for malnourishment, so it’s not like that’s the only thing they need to worry about.” He stopped, his eyes narrowing as he looked at George. “Speaking of hospitals, how come you’re still standing? I saw his hit you at least three times, but you’re not bleeding.”

Time to get his mind on other things. George thought and did just that. “Don’t worry about that, worry about getting out of here. There are more prisoners here, aren’t there? We need to get them, and we need to get everyone the hell out of here before the guards figure out you’re trying to escape.”

“Easier said than done, kid! They told us all we’re at least two days walk from anything like a town. Worse, they said the police in that podunk town, Los Banos, were on the take and knew we were out here. So how the hell do we escape?”

George gave him a smile. “You said you drive a dump truck for a living, right? Think you could drive one to keep living, cause there’s one right outside the entrance to this mine.”

“Hell yeah! Show me that bitch, and I’ll make her stand up and howl if it means getting out of here. But what about the guards? They hear that thing start up, they’re gonna know somethings wrong.”

Stooping, George picked up the dead guard’s AR-15 and held it out. “Well, we’ve got this, plus the two guns I walked in with. If we’ve got anyone here who can use them, maybe we can convince the guards it’s better to let us go than to die trying to stop you.”

That brought a fierce smile to the other man’s face. “It just might be possible. Hell, even if it ain’t, at least we can have the pleasure of killing a few of those bastards before they kill us. Thanks for coming, by the way. I’m John, John Sandoval.”
“Good to meet you, John, I’m George Ishkowa. Do you know Spanish, maybe enough to ask if any of these guys know how to use these guns?”

“Yeah, I do. One of my uncles has a farm down in Jalisco, we used to go visit him when I was a kid.” John faced his fellow prisoners. ¿Alguno de ustedes puede usar estas armas?”

Several hands went up, including one belonging a scrawny, pasty-faced red-head. “I was Air Force, military police. I can use one a them things.”

John gave the man a look. “Don’t doubt you can, Ken, but you can barely walk. You gonna be able to keep up if we gotta make a run for it?”

The red head pushed forward, snatched the AR out of George’s hand, and popped the clip off. He flipped a lever on the side of the weapon, then pulled back on a small handle George hadn’t noticed, sending a bullet flying. Stooping, he retrieved a clip from the pocket of the dead guard and slammed it into place before working the handle again. He turned to George, then John, a toothy grin on his face. “Cocked, locked, and ready to rock. Any of those bastards tries to stop us, they’re meat on a stick as far as I’m concerned.” Two men who looked little better than Ken took the other weapons, and after a quick check, the group headed outside.

Everyone stopped short of the mine entrance, then George and the armed men moving forward. One man made a dash for the hut from which the noise of sex could still be heard. An inarticulate shout, followed by a crash, spoke of the violence that happened. The light inside the building illuminated four women, one of them looking like she should be in high school, following their rescuer out the door. It wasn’t a lot of noise, but it must have been enough.

Somewhere in the darkness, a shout rang out, and everyone followed George as he sprinted towards the truck. Up close, the truck loomed like some mechanical monster in the darkness. John seemed happy to see it. He gave a laugh before running for the ladder that climbed to a cab far above. “Damn, I never thought I’d see one of these babies again! Wait for me to get in the cab, then send everyone else up. There’s a ladder to access the dump bed, but the cab door has to be closed to access it.”

John went up, far more nimble that he’d been before, and as the door closed behind him, George pulled the young woman to the ladder and pointed up. She looked up the ladder, then turned a wide-eyed stare at George. He opened his mouth and froze, unable to think of the words to tell her she needed to climb. One of the older women came forward. “You want her to climb, sí?”

“Yes, but I can’t remember how to say it. Can you explain she has to go up this ladder, then up the one next to it. All of you need to climb up and get in the back of the truck, entender?”

Sí, I tell her.”

What followed was far too quick, and far too quiet, for George to understand. Whatever the older woman said was enough. The young woman went up the ladder, followed by the interpreter, then the rest of the people. George waited until the end, then climbed as far as the cab. John gave him a thumbs up, then reached forward to punch a button. The roar that accompanied that act drown out any chance of George addressing him. The dump truck lurched forward, then began circling to the right following a track visible in the headlights. Something struck sparks off the door frame in front of George, and the quick rattle of gunfire from over his head told him the guards were trying to stop them. The headlights swung across a straight stretch of road, and with a howl, the truck accelerated along it. There was a final burst of gunfire from above George, then nothing as they lumbered their way towards freedom.

#

San Carlos was even smaller than Los Banos, but the sheriff there fed everyone before taking statements from John and all the other captives. George stayed in the background, refusing all the praise heaped upon him. He didn’t want to talk to the sheriff, or even talk to the people he’d helped. He was happy for them, and glad he’d solved the problem of the dead hiker. But he knew there was no way to explain the three holes in the middle of his shirt, and the gaping holes behind them would have been impossible to ignore. Saying he wanted to find a phone, George Ishkaw slipped out of the sheriff’s office and walked down the main drag of San Carlos in search of a ride. It was time to move on.