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.”

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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.

The Prophesy Tree

I’d been on this trail for over two decades, but now, I had hope my search would be over.

The start of my voyage had been a line in my great-grandmother’s diary. She’d been a Highlands girl who’d gone to London to work in the war effort, the First World War that is. It had been just a single, cryptic line: “Just like the Tree said I would, I met Justin at Paddington Station.” Justin had been great-grans one true love, and he had died at the Battle of St. Quentin Canal. My grandfather had been born in November 1918, just short of a month after his father had died. With a child and the war effort winding down, great-gran had taken employment with a rich American family living in London. When they went home, they took their maid/governess with them. That’s how I came to be an American.

Now, I was back in the land that had given birth to my great-grandmother, sitting in a pub not far from where she’d been born. The King’s Head felt like a place that had existed since time began. There was dirt ground into every crack in the worn-smooth half-timbers sticking out of the plastered walls. No one smoked, but generations of smokers had flooded the fiber of the place with their fumes, leaving the air still smelling faintly of them. One who had added to that nicotine stench sat across from me.

Jamie Smith’s withered hand occasionally twitched towards his shirt pocket before pulling away, like he was reaching for a pack of ‘fags’, as he’d called them when he first sat down to talk to me. According to him, he’d quit smoking decades ago, but the habitual motions were still there as he sat, trying to answer my question without actually saying anything.

“Och, aye, everyone’s heard of Annag MacRae and how she went over to America. Banavie’s sent many a young lad and lass out into the world, and she was one of many who left the Highlands duing the Great War. But the last of her family died, oh, twenty years ago. I could show ye her father’s stone, and the rest of the family, at the church, but that’s all there is to see here Yank.”

I wasn’t about to let him avoid my question. “But why did she leave Banavie? You say everyone’s heard of her leaving, so why is it that one young woman leaving a small town like this is remembered?”

Jamie’s eyes, which had darted everywhere while he was talking to me, became even more determined not to look my way. “Ah, well, old stories like that get handed down….”

“But why? What was so special about my great-grandmother?”

That did it. Jamie started sliding towards the end of the bench he was sitting on opposite me, sliding away so he could get out of the small booth we shared. “I’m sorry, but I’ve to be going now. It’s good to see someone who’s family came from here return, but…”

I’d seen Jamie’s eyes following every tray full of drinks that passed us, so I decided to play my trump card. “I’m sorry, my manners are slipping. I haven’t offered to ‘stand you a pint’. I think that’s how you say offer to buy someone a drink over here, isn’t it?”

It worked. Jamie stopped trying to get out of the booth and moved back in front of me. “Well, if you’re willing to buy me a drink, I’d be happy to have it. But I’d much rather a wee drop a’ whiskey than a pint, if that’s all right with you.”

If it got the old man to open up, I’d have bought him a case of whiskey. “Of course, and you being the local expert, I’ll let you pick a good whiskey for both of us.”

#

Jamie upended the whiskey bottle, the last few drops making tiny rings on the surface of the amber liquid that filled his glass to the brim. He sat it down with exaggerated care, slowly took up his glass, and cocked it ever so slightly towards me. “Ta yer health, sir!” he said, as he had at the beginning of every glass before. Now, his words were badly slurred and his accent more pronounced. That he was still upright amazed me. I was nursing my second glass of Ben Nevis Blue Label, and my head was starting to spin. The rest of the bottle, plus a pair of ‘tots’ he’d drunk before I ordered the bottle, were all inside Jamie. But he raised the glass to his lips with hands as steady as mine, and drank a third of the glass in one slow swallow. When he lowered it, I made one final try at getting him to talk.

“So, Jamie, you were going to tell me about my great-grandmother…”
Bleary eyes fixed mine. “I was not! Why would I tell a Yank about the…” Jamie stopped, blushing and clearly flustered that he’d nearly said something he wasn’t supposed to. I decided to press my luck and see if I could bluff him.

“You were going to tell me about The Tree, the one that told my great-grandmother about the man she’d marry. So why don’t you start?”

Those blood-shot eyes widened, then narrowed. “Och, you’re jokin’. No outsider knows about The Tree.”

“But I do! My great-grandmother wrote about it in her diary, about how it told her she would meet the love of her life in London, at Paddington Station. All I’m asking for is a chance to go there, see The Tree, and maybe offer thanks for setting my ancestor on the right path. Is that wrong?”

Jamie’s eyes narrowed to thin strips, and I began to suspect he might have seen through my bluff. Then he shook his head and took another, deeper drink of whiskey before answering me. “Tha’ silly chit, writin’ somethin’ like tha’ down. No one outside of Banavie is ever supposed ta know ’bout the Prophesy Tree.”

So my guess was right. But he still hadn’t told me anything about the actual tree. Time to press it to the limit. “Well, she did, and I know about the Prophesy Tree. Would you be willing to take me there, so I can pay respects for my dead great-grandmother?”

That got a reaction from Jamie, not the one I’d expected. His eyes widened, and he recoiled like I’d just pulled a gun on him. “No, not in a million years!” He relaxed slightly and leaned forward to close the distance between us. I did the same, and he muttered. “”Sides, I dinna know where th’ tree is. Only ol’ MacGilleain knows where tis, an’ I don’ think ye kin get ‘im to tell ye.”

Jamie leaned back, glass in hand again, and drained its contents in a gulp. He placed it on the table like it were made of spun smoke, then with a drunken grin, pitched forward, unconscious before his face hit the wood between us. None of the other patrons seemed surprised by this, so I settled my tab, asked the bartender to arrange for Jamie to be taken home, and adjourned to my bed and breakfast.

How was I going to find someone based on their last name, even in a small town like this? My smart phone, when I queried it, came back with several people who had that name, but none of them lived in Banavie. One, though, did live nearby, and when I asked for directions to his house, I found it located in a small valley not far from the base of Ben Nevis. The map showed a road leading up to it, but based on the driving I’d done to date, that tiny, crooked yellow ribbon couldn’t be much more than a pave goat path. “Not something you should be tackling half drunk.” I told myself as I kicked off my shoes and lay down.

I’d planned to get undressed and take a shower before going to bed the night before. The rising late Summer Sun, slanting through my window, woke me. My head felt like a group of tiny men with huge hammers were inside it, trying desperately to beat their way out. The taste in my mouth was indescribable, like what I imagine having a herd of Highland cattle driven across your tongue might taste like. About the only plus was that my stomach showed no signs of rebelling, one of things I liked least about getting drunk.

Last nights clothing off, I got under the shower head and didn’t mind the time it took the water to warm. The initial icy downpour helped wake me the rest of the way up, and brought back what I’d learned the night before. Now, I had to find out of the MacGilleain my phone had found was the same one Jamie had hinted at. I scrubbed myself down, letting my mouth fill with water from the shower a couple of times to help rinse some of the foulness out of it. “Time I got ready to face the next stage of my search.”

#

The road that climbed away from the A82 was almost as bad as I’d imagined it to be. It wasn’t a paved goat path, but a single lane road, a narrow strip of pavement that followed a tortuous path through the bleakly beautiful Scottish hills. Here was not a place to take your eyes off the road to consult a phone for directions, so I was reduced to listening to the annoying voice telling me what to do.

“In fifty meter, turn left. In ten meters, turn right.”

No roads lead off the one I followed, making all those directions redundant. “To borrow the English line, would you sod off!” I growl at the senseless hunk of electronics. It ignores me, so I do what I can to tune it out. The road begins to climb, its back and forth rambling giving way a series of sweeping climbs up steep rocky hillsides, each one ending in a hair-pin turn. The sky begins to change as well. When I’d left Banavie, nothing beyond a scattering of clouds marred an otherwise perfect day. Now, with the mountains growing around me, the clouds joined into an uninterrupted deck of dark gray. Another turn, and the first raindrop spatters down on my windshield. It soon has plenty of company. The rain grows in intensity, becoming an unbroken sheet of that blocks out everything beyond a few hundred feet ahead. And still the road climbs.

I’m in the middle of nowhere, driving on what to me is the wrong side of the road with increasingly bad visibility. Is there another car coming down this narrow path? A moment’s break in the rain, and I find myself hoping there isn’t. Below me, just inches from the door, I have a view down the hill. I can see the road I’ve been climbing, a light snakelike path among the streaming rocks, and there is nothing to stop me from going over the edge. Opposite that terrifying view is a rough rock wall, a vertical slab of stone where the hillside has been carved away to make the road, and it is not much farther away than the drop. The rain closes about me, bringing both comfort and fear, and I continue my drive.

The rock wall grows lower, then drops away as I make a final turn onto a level space that stretches out of sight in the downpour. The road arrows into the center of that space, and I follow it, glad that I have encountered no other traffic. But now, my phone has gone silent, its annoying verbal barrage is no more. I slow to a stop and pick it up. It couldn’t be the battery, not with it plugged into the car. The screen shows the winding path I had come up, but according to it, I had yet to finish the climb. I tap the screen, and nothing happens. Closing the app, then opening it again brings the voice back, but now all it says is “Updating GPS, please wait.” over and over.

Outside, there is a final torrential rush of rain before it fades to drizzle. The road has climbed high enough that clouds surround me, leaving me as blind to my surroundings as when the rain poured down. My phone still complains that it can’t update its GPS system, and I decide to continue without it. I keep my speed low, for while there is no deadly drop-off, stout dry stone walls now outline the road, leaving little room to dodge oncoming traffic. The ground seems flat, but my inner ear insists I am driving up a slope. And the road continues on, with no diversions or branches.

A shape, indistinct, appears out of the mist, and I slow in hope of a house, of some sign of other humans. What I see was a house, but is no more. Rough stone walls rise from rank weeds. No trace of a roof remains. Empty holes, where once windows stood, flank a doorway that, incongruously, still holds a dark red door. I roll past the gap in the stone wall before that door and continue on, glad to put the desolate scene behind me.

The drizzle stops, and while the fog remains thick, I catch an occasional hint of what is around me. Steep, rocky slopes rise on either hand to disappear into the clouds. A swift stream rushes down, swirling below the road as it passes over a stone bridge with a weathered stone plaque bearing the date of 1823. A group of dirty white shapes stand in the grass beyond the wall, sheep grazing in this damp and dismal place, but no sheppard accompanies them. And the road continues on.

My mind begins to wander. My great-grandmother had written many times of her homeland. She had described the mist-shrouded mountains, but her words had made them feel like home. For me, who had grown up on the flat plains of the Midwest, they were an alien landscape, almost a scene from a nightmare. She had longed to see her native Highlands again, while I wanted nothing more than to find what I was looking for and get away from them.

The opening in the stone wall appeared and disappeared as I drove past it like the wall blinked. I step on the brakes, and the car skids, slewing to the left before coming to a stop. Reversing, I come before it. A pair of rough upright stones frame an opening hardly more than the width of the subcompact I’m in. Beyond it is a rutted path thick with weeds. There is no house visible, just the trail that disappears into the mist, but I know this is the path I must follow. How I know this I can’t say, but my heart tells me this is the path I must follow. I work the car around, line up, and drive through those gateposts with fractions to spare.

“Well, I was wondering when I’d end up on a paved goat path. Now, I’m on an unpaved one.” Telling myself that, with the weeds scrap the undercarriage, does nothing to improve my confidence that I’ll make it to where ever this road leads. At least there are no walls hemming me in, giving me hope that if I meet someone coming down this rutted excuse for a road, I’ll be able to get out of their way, A dark shape ahead resolves itself into a boulder the size of a garden shed, and the road jogs left to avoid it. It doesn’t go back in its original direction, but continues up an increasingly steep slope. The road becomes rougher, the ruts deeper. I hear a louder scrap from the underside of the car and know it’s not weeds hitting. No, it’s the central crown of the road, rising to the point where I’m barely clearing it, and ahead, things are worse.

I stop and get out to examine the ground around the road. Uphill, it feels solid, but downhill, my foot tries to sink in as soon as I put my weight on it. “Oh well, at least there’s enough room for me to get turned around on the solid side of the road.” I walk ahead and find my suspicions are correct. There are places where the crown of the road rises above the path by a distance that’s halfway to my knees. So I can get turned around and go back, but I can’t go forward, at least not in the car. But I still feel the impulse to follow this road, and rather than listen to reason, I decide to listen to my heart. The car humps across the crown as I crank the steering wheel all the way around and give it some gas. Three back-and-forth cuts and I’ve got it parked on the grassy shoulder facing downhill. I kill the engine, put the parking brake and emergency blinkers on before lock up.

The air is chilly, and seems to close around me like only a really dense fog does. I make my way to the road, my shoes soaking through from the dew on the grass. Down the hill, the weeds in the center of the road are sheered off inches from the ground. Uphill, beyond where they are beaten down by my turning around, they rise to my waist. No vehicle could come this way, not even a military Hummer, without leaving some sign of its passing. Yet I know without question that what I seek is at the end of this road. So I walk, through the fog that swirls around me, climbing ever higher, and wondering how far I will go before reaching my destination.

Long before I see it, I hear the rush and gurgle of water grow on my right. In the stark, silence-shrouded landscape, the sound of the normal world is welcome. Another dark shape grows before me, revealing itself to be a rock abutment, a bare heel of the surrounding hill that rises before me like a head-high cliff. Before it, the road bends again, a right turn far beyond a right angle. Now, the water does not rush, it roars. The rock fades into the mist, then returns. Before me, close beside the road, it rises in a vertical wall that disappears into the fog. A stream, strong with the recent rain, pours down, making a gray curtain that half covers the road. No way around it, not with the ground dropping away on the downhill side at an angle near vertical. All my surety that I was right were for this?

“So, this is what I came to find? A fucking gray rainbow on the side of a fucking Scottish hill?”

My words come back at me, a muffled echo from the rock before me, and I feel ashamed of myself. Great-grandmother walked this very road, and I have yet to complete the journey she succeeded in making. I walk towards the falling water and find the road continues beyond. I also see that provisions for those afoot have been made. A line of mossy, flat-topped stones rise from the stream feet from the drop-off, spaced to make a dry-footed crossing possible. I take them, one careful step at a time, feeling my feet shift with every movement. The fall is beside me, spray for it sprinkling, then running, down my neck.

A final step, and I’m across. The rock face the stream runs down drops back, a narrow beak of stone thrust from the hill behind it. Here the grass on the uphill slope ends at a stand of trees, huge shapes that peek through the fog and look as though they have stood since the hill arose. Is this what I seek? Does the tree my great-grandmother mentioned stand before me? No, I feel the same pull that has drawn me up this road. It is ahead of me, the thing I am looking for.

The road is no more, now it is nothing but a rough path through the grass and heather. Below me, the hill drops away less steeply, and my path no longer rises. The darkness begins to fade, and detail grow clearer, the fog begins to thin. I see a low structure ahead, but this is no rotting shell of a house. Whitewashed stone walls rise to a thick thatched roof. Windows, one with a candle burning behind it, fill their allotted openings. Smoke drifts towards me from the chimney, and I catch a whiff of earthiness born on the breeze. The door is black, an unadorned surface that might as well be a portal unto eternal night. It opens, allowing a thin stream of light to illuminate the flagstone walk leading to it, and through it steps a man. He is tall, stooping to pass through the low door, and while he carries a heavy wooden cane, his steps are firm and sure. His white hair is long and done in a single ponytail, the beard that hides most of his lower face is cropped short. None of that would be out of place in any of the Scottish towns I have passed through, but what would is his dress. He looks like someone fresh from central casting, a Highlander of ages past. A tartan cape, one I mistake for all black but as he comes closer I see is actually shot through with fine lines of yellow and green, covers his shoulders. He wears a loosely ruffled shirt over a kilt of the same dark tartan pattern, and white socks, or hose, rise to his knees from heavy square-toed shoes. Our eyes are the same height, and as his fix on me, and I feel as though he is looking inside me, not at me. He smiles, holds out his hand, and addresses me.

Beannachdan, coigreach, agus fàilte.”

I take his hand, and find his grip firm. Umm, I’m sorry, but I don’t understand you. Do you speak English?”

I feel like an idiot even as I speak, but the smile never fades. “Och, I can, but I ha’ hopes ye might know the Scottish. Ah well, I won’t ask what brings ye here. You were drawn here, weren’t ye?”

“No, I came here because of something I read in a diary.”

His eyes narrow slightly, and I know he can see I’m not telling the whole truth. “Oh, tha’s wha set you on the road, but tha’s not wha drew you here, is it? I’ll wager you didn’t read how to get here in tha’ diary, nor did it keep ye going when it looked like ye’d walked inta th’ middle of nowhere. Am I wrong?”

“No, you’re not. But how…”

The man gives me a sly wink. “You were touched by th’ Tree, weren’t you? Not you, precisely, but someone in your past.”

I nod, suddenly unsure of what I’ve walked into. He lets go of my hand and turns towards the house. “Well, come inside so ye can tell me the story in the dry. Fog like this only thins out when th rain’s about to come pouring down. So let’s sit someplace warm while ye tell me everything.”

I follow him up the walk, lowering my head as does to avoid the low door sill. Up close, the door is not plain. Upon it is an ornate knocker in the shape of a tree. Made of dull iron, the leafy boughs form an anchor plate, tapering down to a pair arms that are split above their joining with the trunk by hinges. The trunk hangs down to end in a spread of roots that serves as the handle. No rust defaces the mechanism, but the impression is of great age, as though it has hung here as long as the giant trees I glimpsed earlier. The inside of the house is warm and welcoming after my walk, and there is no sign of modern technology anywhere. The sole source of warmth is the fireplace, and it gives off no more than a dull light. A pair of candles flank a high-backed chair, a small pool of illumination in a room filled with shadows. It is into that chair that my host settles. He waves towards a small table.

Bring a chair, an’ sit yerself down by th fire. There’s more peat in th basket, feel free to throw nother sod on th fire if ye‘re feeling th chill.”

The chairs about the table are straight-backed, their wood grown dark with age, made smooth by use. I draw one to the fireside, see wickerwork basket sized for a large family filled with shaggy brown bricks, and pick one up. It is surprisingly light, and as it crumbles in my hand, the scent from the smoke outside rises to greet me. I lay it atop others already on the grate and settle myself facing the old man. He watches me, waiting, it seems, for me to speak. So I oblige him.

“You said the tree draws those who have been touched by it to them. What did you mean?”

He leans towards me, eyes locked on me. “Aye, a good first question. Those th tree favors with vision are forever linked to it, as are those who’s lives spring from that connection.” He tilts his head, first to one side, then the other, before nodding. “Ye‘re Annag MacRae child, aren’t you?” I kin see her in your eyes, and the shape of yer nose.

How would this man know what my great-grandmother looked like? There’s not a single photo of her in our whole family. “No, I’m her great-grand child. Annie is the name she’s remembered by, and she’s been dead nearly a hundred years now.”

The old man leans back, shaking his head. “A hundred years? Och, has it been so long in th world outside? But no mind. The Tree’s drawn you back, as it does everone.”

Wait, wait, are you trying to tell me you knew Annie? That’s impossible! You might be old, but there’s no way you’re that old.”

But the old man smiles at me as he nods. “Aye, you’re right…I wa a hundred years old a’fore Annag’s fathers-father wa even a hope in his father’s heart. Ive been here been far beyond all their lives, and until time itself stops, I will remain here.”

Are you telling me you’re immortal?”

The smile grows sly. “Ah, not ‘immortal’, at least not at first. I was a young man when I first touched The Tree and it granted me my sole vision. It showed me this house, this wee glen, and it showed me myself as I am now. I knew the moment I had the vision that I would see this place, and that here I would live far beyond the span of mortal men.”

Now I was confused. “You said the Tree ‘showed’ you this place…but isn’t the Tree here?”

“Oh, it is, yes, right here, not far from us at all.”

“Then how could it have shown you this place if it’s already here?”

The old man threw his head back and let out a laugh that shook the candle flames on either side of him. He continued, until with a slap to his knobby bare knee, he wiped his eyes and spoke to me again. “The Tree’s here because I brought it here, ye young fool. De I have ta spell it out for ya?”

But it’s not here! I saw the only trees, yet the feeling that drew me here drew me beyond them. So where is this mystical Tree?”

The old man rolls up first one sleeve, then the other. The arms under them are pocked with white scars, ranging from snowy freckles near his wrist to larger, ugly circles and lines farther up. “I earned each o’ these, at me own forge. I wa’ considered th’ best smith in all the glens, and one night I wa’ woke by a sound like thunder, but there wa’ never a drop o’ rain. Th’ next day, my laird came round. He had a black rock th’ size o’ me head, an’ said it’d felled a yew tree a’fore his house. He thought it were iron, and he wanted me to make it into a sword. He thought anything tha could cleave a yew could do th’ same to a man.” He shakes his head, eyes unfocused. “The MacLoed he wa’, an’ he wa’ a man o’ blood. I knew before I touched it tha’ MacLoed would use th sword I made ta start a feud wi’ one a’ the neighborin’ clans. He were ne’er happy wi’ just the few glens he ruled. His father wa’ wi’ The Bruce, an’ MacLoed always thought his father should’a been given more when The Bruce came to th’ throne. Then he laid it in me hands, an’ I saw it. My future. Bu’ I knew I could’na just walk away from the like of MacLoed. So I promised him a sword, an’ I made one too…just not fra’ his precious rock. He took’t ta raidin’, an’ one o’ th’ Campbell clan cut him down like a stalk o’ rye.”

The pieces dropped into place, and I looked towards the front door of the cottage. “So the Tree is…”

“Aye, it’s me knocker. I thought it fittin’ ta turn it inta a tree, wha’ wi’ it havin’ felled one. Those as ha’ the courage ha’ come here since, to speak ta me, thinkin’ I know where th’ tree is. Th’ Tree decides, or maybe Fate, who’re blessed with a vision. If they’re ta ha’ a vision, they use th’ knocker; if not, they beat on the door ’til I tell’em ta sod off.”

It made an almost cruel sort of sense, but I was left with a singular question. “But that doesn’t explain how you’ve lived all this time. My great-grandmother lived a long life for her time, but she barely passed the biblical ‘three-score-and-ten’. What’s kept you alive all this time?”

I dinna know. I think time runs a bit different in this glen. Ta me, it feels like Annag wa’ here just a few days ago. I know th’ trees near ne’er drop their leaves, bu’ when I came here ta build me cot, they acted like normal trees. Maybe me Tree does som’thin’ ta time.” He stops, looks me over again. “Ye’ve ne’er asked ta touch it, I see. Why is tha’, I wonder.”

Now that the puzzle was solved, now that I knew what had taken my ancestor away from here native land, I found myself uneasy. Not just with the idea that a piece of meteorite might have the power to grant a person a vision of their future, but with this entire house and everything about it. Especially the ancient man in front of me. He continues to watch me, waiting in silence for what I will say, what I will do, next. And all I want to do is run. I want away from this place, from this timeless man and this piece of Scotland that feels frozen in time.

I…just wanted to find out why my ancestor ended up in America, what drove her to leave her home. And I have.” I stand far quicker than I’d intended, the panic in the back of my mind taking hold, driving my impulse to fly from this cottage. I fight down the urge to run for the door. “Thank you for your help, and for your hospitality, but I’ve taken enough of your time. Good day, Mr. MacGilleain.” I don’t offer him my hand, I walk to the door as swiftly as I can without breaking into a run.

Outside, the sky is clear and the Sun has set. Both the flags and grass are dry, the latter with that dusty coating that speaks of a long period of dry weather. But it had all been damp when I’d entered the cottage. I strike the path down the hill, only to find that the waterfall is now little more than a trickle over the upper rock face. Below it, the stream bed shows fresh growth, as though the surrounding vegetation has taken sudden advantage of the lack of flowing water to expand into the stream bed. A single, none-too-long step carries me across the stream without the need for the stepping stone, and I let myself break into a trot, hoping to escape this place.

In the fading light, the weeds in the middle of the road look wilted, as though they have endured a long drought. I make the turn that carries the road downhill, but when I reach the spot where I am sure I left the car, I find nothing. I keep going, sure I will find it eventually, but I don’t. As the last light is leaving the midnight blue sky, I come to the road. It is strange, not the tarmac I remember driving, but an absolutely smooth surface like a continuous sheet of gray plastic. It’s miles to the A82, so far I’m not sure I could cover the distance if I pushed myself through the night. I’m tempted to sit down and wait for a passing car, but waiting for a ride on this deserted stretch of road seems like the definition of a forlorn hope. And more than anything, I want away from here. So I begin walking down the middle of the road, sure that I’ll see, or at least hear, any vehicle before it become a hazard. The Moon begins to rise, casting a pale light over the scenery around me. Then I hear something. I whistling sound unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. It seems to be behind me, but what it is, I can’t tell. It grows stronger, like it were approaching, but I see no lights, not a sign of a vehicle approaching. Then, I catch a glint of moonlight reflecting off something. Another, closer, and as my mind begins to realize something is coming down the road at me, a dark shape appears. I have a moment to marvel at how fast, and how silently, it is moving, then I feel it hit me. There is a moment’s pain, then it disappears and I am left to marvel at how the starry sky seems to wheel over me before I hit the ground, and all sense leaves me.

#

Ian knew he should have had his pod’s onboard sensors fixed, but the malfunctioning ones were only for night-time use, and he rarely drove after dark. So here he was, stopped in the dark, sitting in the middle of the glide-road between Banavie and Torcastle because he’d run late leaving Torcastle. Without the radar and other navigation sensors, the pod hadn’t detected…whatever the hell it was Ian had hit. But did he really want to get out and see what he’d run into. Modern paint carried taggers, so the farmer who’d lost a sheep would know who’s pod had killed it. And because he’d left the scene of an accident involving destruction of property, Ian would face charges. Worse, his pod would be inspected, and when it was found he’d been operating it without all the safety equipment working, his problems would get exponentially worse.

Open access port.” he commanded, and the pod obeyed, letting in the cool outside air. There was a torch under the seat, and he withdrew it before examining the front. Ian blessed his luck that there weren’t any pieces of sheep or any other animal smeared across the leading edge, then began retracing the pod’s path. Maglev vehicles could stop quickly, and Ian had gone only a few steps before he saw the shoe. It was an old-fashioned one, something he remembered his father favoring known as a ‘trainer’. It was in the middle of the road, and Ian’s blood ran cold. Had he struck a person? Pods were supposed to be designed to cue in on humans and do everything possible to keep from hitting them. But what if more than just his radar and front lights were malfunctioning?

Ian swept his torch beam around, hoping against hope that he would see nothing. What he did see, when the beam of light played across it, looked like a bundle of old clothing thrown against the dry stone wall beside the road. Then he saw the blood, and his stomach betrayed him. Doubling over, he heaved, then again, and supper came spewing out his mouth. Another clinch of muscles, and more of his stomach’s contents splattered on the guideway. A third time, and all that came out was a thin stream of foul-tasting liquid. Ian spit, trying to get the taste out of his mouth, then raised his wrist to his mouth. “Call the police, emergency number.” The phone/browser/tracker sputtered, ticeshen replied. “Calling emergency services.” The double-chirp of the phone ringing came clear in the still night air, then the too polite female voice of an automated system answered. “This is Torcastle Emergency Services, how may I help you?”

I need to speak to an officer.”

Did you say need to speak to an officer?”
Ian fought the desire to scream at the phone. “Yes, I need to speak to an officer. I’ve had an accident on the Banavie-Torcastle secondary guideway…I think I might have struck a pedestrian.”

There was a silence, then a loud click followed by a bored voice. “This is Constable Owens. Did you say you’d struck a pedestrian?”

Yes, officer, I did…and I think he might killed them.”

The voice, when it replied, had not a trace of boredom in it. “I have your location and your identity entered, so if you attempt to flee, you’ll be regarded as a wanted fugitive in a felony criminal act. I’ve dispatched one of our patrol pods, it should be there momentarily. While we wait, I need you to answer a few questions.”

The questions were what Ian had expected: What had he been doing at the time of the accident? Had he overridden the pod’s safety protocols? Had he been aware that operating a pod with faulty sensors was a punishable offense? Constable Owens was telling him the time he faced for the charges hed already admitted to when Ian spotted the flashing blue lights of the patrol pod boring through the night. Like all other emergency service vehicles, the patrol pod wasn’t bound by the speed limits other vehicles were. Ian felt the pressure wave it generated buffet him as the craft came to a stop a scant two meters from him. Its access panel opened, and a young woman climbed out, adjusting the archaic but still regulation hat on her head as she approached him.

I’m Patrol Officer Morris. I take it you’re Ian Ivers?”

Yes, Officer. The man I struck is over there. I haven’t approached him, but I haven’t heard him move. Is he dead?”

I don’t know, but for now, I’m placing you under arrest for vehicular manslaughter. Please turn away from me and put your hands behind your back.”

Ian did as he was told and felt the cold metal of the restraints close around his wrists. “By law, I must warn you that if you attempt to flee, the restraints will deliver a shock strong enough to disable you if you exceed five meters distance from me. I must also warn you that I can activate the shock system if I feel you are acting in a threatening manner. Do you understand these warnings?”

Yes, officer, but if I’d intended to flee, why would I have called emergency services?”

I can’t speculate as to your actions or motives, sir, I’m just here to gather facts.” Her tracker had a small torch in it, and she shone this towards where Ian knew the body lay. When she found it, she extinguished the light and spoke into her tracker. “This is Officer Theresa Morris, ID 772, requesting the dispatch of a crime scene unit to my GPS location. Vehicular manslaughter, one victim.” She tapped the face of the tracker, then did it again. “Victim either does not have a tracker, or the unit was damaged in the accident. I shall make a preliminary examination to try to get an ID, so tell the technicians they’ll have to screen for my DNA on the victim. Stand by, Central.”

Ian watched the officer as she turned her light back on and approached the still form. In the quiet night air, he could hear everything she said to her listening colleagues. “Victim does not appear to be wearing a tracker, and there is no evidence of one near the body.” He saw her reach out and pull the body over, then saw her let it fall back. “Face is too badly damaged to use for recognition purposes. I will search the body for any identifying marks or distinctive items.”

The silence stretched longer this time as the officer searched the body. She stopped at a bulge in the rear trouser pocket. “Central, the victim is carrying an old-fashioned wallet.” She opened it and began rifling through its contents. “Victim has paper money, old-fashioned English pound notes! There’s an ID of some sort here, give me a second to extract it.”

Ian could understand the surprise. Scotland had declared independence from England twenty years ago, and even in England, nobody used physical money anymore. Where had this man come from? He got part of his answer as the officer read the ID she’d found.

The victim has what looks like an old-fashioned American state drivers license, dated as issued in 2019. It was issued by the state of Iowa, in the name of Paul Armando Sanchez, who resided at 328 South Central Street, in the city of Carswells Corner.”

For the first time, the tracker squawked out a reply. “Repeat, did you say your victim was carrying the identification of Paul Armando Sanchez?”

Yes sir, and while his face is a bit too much of a mess to make an ID from the photo, the description on the license matches the body. Why do you ask?”

Because, Officer Morris, you may have solved a missing person case that’s been on the books for over 60 years. Mr. Sanchez was reported missing in 2019, and his rental car was found less than a kilometer from your current coordinates. I wonder where the old boy’s been hiding all these years…and how a man that old could have stumbled into a guideway in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.”

Ian had gotten a good enough look at the body to know the dead man wasn’t much older than he was. Officer Morris clearly felt the same way.

Central, I don’t know who this is, but it can’t possibly be a man who’d be, what, at least 98 years old. The victim appears to be a man in his early thirties, if dressed a bit oddly.”

What do you mean? Describe how the victim is dressed.”

The light played over Sanchez’s still form. “White, I think they called them polo shirts, blue jeans that look as though they’re less than a year old and black laced cloth shoes…didn’t they used to call them ‘trainers’?”

The voice from Central did not respond immediately, but when it did, Ian could hear the anger in it. “Officer Morris, have you been reading the case file on this disappearance?”

No,sir, I haven’t!”

There was a sigh from the tracker. “Then maybe you can explain how your description is a words-for-word match to the description given by the last person to see Mr. Sanchez alive. Never mind. Just stay there, guard your prisoner, and hope the lab techs can sort out how a man can be missing all this time and not age a day.”

Alone

Jack looked at the still figure in the coffin and shook his head.

“It’s all right, Jack. Paul had been sick a long time. At least now he’s not in pain.”

Frank, another of Paul Sanchez’s old friends, had walked up beside Jack without him noticing. The statement drew a wry smile from Jack.

“I know. That’s not what I was shaking my head about…I mean I know Paul was pretty much an American okatu, but to decide he wanted to be buried dressed like Spike Spiegel from ‘Cowboy Bebop’…”

Frank leaned in close and lowered his voice. “Yeah, I know. Trying to make heavy-set bald guy look like a slick ex-gang killer just doesn’t work. Then again, I heard his request was to be buried in one of his cosplay outfits, and only two of them still fit: this one….and one for the red Power Ranger. Would he have looked better dressed like that?”

Jack had to fight a desire to chuckle. “I don’t know, him in red spandex with the mask and all…” That was when he noticed the thumb drive lying on Paul’s chest, its lanyard wrapped around his wrist. “What’s with the thumb drive?”

“I hear it’s got a collection of Paul’s favorite anime on it. Supposedly he put it together when they told him he was going to be in the hospital for a long time so he’d have something better than the regular TV to watch. Too bad he didn’t get a chance to watch it.”

Jack remember the call. Hearing his childhood friend had died suddenly while being evaluated for congestive heart failure had been a shock, but as Frank had said, Paul had been having chest pains and trouble doing stuff for years. The two of them had become friend because of a love of Japanese animation, an interest that had brought Frank into their acquaintance during high school.

Paul had gone on the learn about, and later lecture on, Japanese culture. His devotion to anime and manga had been the stuff of legend in the small circle of follower of those art forms living around Carswell’s Corner. His house was a shrine to Japanese illustrative art.

“So, any idea what he put on it?”

Frank shrugged. “Not a clue. If I had to bet, at least his favorites, like ‘Bebop’, ‘Ghost in the Shell’ and ‘Hell Girl’. Probably ‘Tokyo Ghoul’ and ‘Corpse Princess’. Who knows what he burned on it. The guy had a digital version of pretty much any anime that was ever released, so it’s hard to say. I just thought it’d be nice to send it off with him, something to enjoy in anime Valhalla.”

#

So Paul Sanchez went into the ground. A man who’d died, loving an art form and buried with it. His friends carried him to his grave, his few remaining family members wept for him, but in the end, he was gone. Dead and buried. Free from the concerns that would shape the world he left behind. Spared the suffering that would be inflicted on all humanity within a decade of his passing.

#

Paul Sanchez bolted upright, a move that caused the room he was in to spin and his head to throb. He remembered the hospital room, the doctors crowding around him. A nurse pressing his chest so hard it felt like she was trying to drive her hands through him. Then nothing until this moment.

Paul could tell he was on some sort of platform in a featureless off-white space. The surface under his butt yielded as he shifted, and he realized he was dressed in his Spike Spiegel costume. Why? Wait…he remembered asking to be buried in one of his cosplay outfits…had he died? Was this hell? Heaven? Some eternal waiting room for those to be reincarnated?

A muffled whoosh drew Paul’s attention to an opening that had appeared in the blank wall. Through it…Paul could think of no other term to describe how what those massive insect-like creatures moved like than scuttled. Their grayish-brown ovoid bodies glittered in the sourceless light that flooded the space like they were made of plastic. There were eight of them, and the eight legs they moved on arching up and away from those bodies moving in a blur when they advanced into the room. Their feet, or whatever they were, caused a clicking noise like a flock of women in high heels walking fast. Paul pushed himself back from them, back to find that a wall was immediately behind him and he had no place to go to escape the freak show in front of him.

They spread out in a semi-circle in front of Paul, and for the first time, he saw what had to be their faces. Four black, faceted eyes, two to a side, flanked a mouth that gaped behind a pair of wicked-barbed mandibles. Several of them had pouches slung under their bodies, and into one of these the insect in the center of the group reached with its front legs, which Paul now saw ended in something like a hand. That individual made a noise like a string of clicks and chirps as it drew out a metal box. One of the other insects, this one on the left end of the crescent, made a noise that sounded like a fart, which brought another, longer string of noises from the central insect. It had barely stopped when the insect on its immediate right launched into a long string of noises, including a bleating sound Paul couldn’t imagine such a mouth being able to produce. In seconds, all of the insects were vocalizing, some of them even waving their front legs/arms about, a spectrum of sounds that grew in volume until if made Pauls’ head ache. He slapped his hands over his ears, trying to keep the noise at bay, and it stopped as if someone had turned a switch off.

He looked about, saw that the insects had frozen with their front legs/arms in mid-motion Some of them had been facing each other, but now they all scuttled around to face him again. The central insect, the metal box still in its hand, took a step forward and raised the box. It let out a string of noises, waited, then adjusted controls on the box before repeating the same string of noises. This time, the box made a noise like someone fighting the impulse to puke, and Paul nearly laughed as the insect shook it for all the world like a human with a malfunctioning piece of electronics. Another series of adjustments, and when the string of noises was repeated a third time, the box produced a string of Japanese words.

Paul could understand the words, but the syntax was wrong. He opened his mouth, tried to speak, and found himself so dry he had to swallow before he could speak. “Konnichiwa.” he managed to get out, hoping a polite hello would convey something to these creatures.

The box produced a long string of clicks, moans and noises Paul couldn’t even begin to describe. It was far too long to convey the simple message he’d hoped pass along. The insect held the box up to one pair of eyes, brought a hand around to do something, and then brought it down to its mouth. It repeated the earlier sounds, much more slowly this time, and after a stutter of noise, the box bleated out. “Greeting! We revive you to our questions answer. Answer.”

Where the hell did they get a voice sample to reproduce the voice of Kirito from “Sword Art Online”? Hearing that voice had stunned Paul for a moment, and the sudden switch in languages forced him to mentally shift gears before replying. The delay must not have set well with the insects. Even as he opened his mouth to reply, the central insect let out a new string of noises that set the box squawking. “Answer! Require answer we do!’

Paul did his best not to laugh at the Yoda-like quality of the demand. Something in the tone of the voice told him the insect was angry, or at least impatient. “I’ll answer you, but I have a question first. How did I get here?”

“You, Subject 4532. Others we try revive, not work. You first. Your society preserve people. Revive not easy.”

Preserve people? What the hell…wait, have they been trying to revive dead people? “How did you get hold of me?”

The box spit out a string of noises that started an exchange between the central insect and the ones on either side of it. Whether it had been shut off, or just couldn’t keep up to translate, the box remained silent until they’d stopped. Central insect let out a final string of noises, waved a front leg/arm towards the wall behind it, and the third insect on the right drew a small object out of its pouch. A few movements of its hand, and the wall became a display. On it, Paul saw a broad expanse, like a field of ash. Out of it rose blocks of stone, blocks he recognized with a start as tombstones. Several holes had been crudely dug through the ash, leaving the underground vault exposed. The scene began to move as a video clip followed a group of insects in what looked like space suits crawled down into the hole to lift the lid of the vault off. Out came a casket, the plain one Paul had chosen long ago to serve as his spot of final repose. He wanted to turn away but couldn’t. He watched the insects move aside as something gleaming of metal scurried into view and placed itself over the box. Limbs far more flexible, and far stronger, whipped down to begin prying at the coffin lid. They failed, and a new limb came out of the side of the machine. This one traced the outline of the lid, leaving a smoking trail behind. It completed its circuit, retracted into the machine, and the other arms moved in. This time, the lid came away, and the machine moved off on four legs, with four more clutching the lid.

Inside the coffin was a form dressed in a dark suit, the suit Paul now wore. The face was his, but drawn tight as if the skin has shriveled down to embrace the bone beneath it. Seeing himself dead, looking at his lifeless corpse, stopped Paul’s mind in its tracks. The video kept going, the camera moving from that bony face down to his chest. He saw the thumb drive he’d made, the one he’d hoped to watch during his hospital stay, and wondered which of his friends had sent it into the afterlife with him.

Then that image was gone, replaced by a montage of clip from “Sekirei”, “Tokyo Ghoul”, “Corpse Princess” and several more. Another string of noises, and the box sputtered out “These, where? Not end with you. Powerful! Where?”

“What do you mean? I don’t understand the question.”

The box chirped, squawked, clicked and hissed. The insect holding it held it out, shook it violently, then let out a string of nosies. This time, the box tried to interpret them. It couldn’t translate much of what the insect said, but two words came out loud and clear. “Fucking box!” Hearing it’s words coming out in another language set the insect to working on the box. Both remained silent while the insect worked on whatever it thought was wrong with the interpreter. Then the insect spoke again, it’s string of noises coming out in another string of mangled English. “These, in images, where? Your people, yes. Where? Powers, this type, not end. Where?”

Did they honestly think anime was a realistic representation of humanity? That there were women like Musubi bouncing around? That Ken Kaneki wandered the streets of Tokyo, fighting his desire to kill and eat humans? “Those aren’t real. There are no people like that. Why didn’t you just ask someone, they could have told you it was all make-believe. Entertainment, understand? Entertainment.

The box clicked and moaned away, and when it finished, a storm of noise arose from the insects. All of them were talking, probably shouting given the way the volume rose over time. An occasional word popped out of the box, not enough to make any sense of, but the box could put intonation on words, and some of them were clearly being said in anger.

“…gone…”

“….waste!”

“Dead…”

Center Insect (Paul had started to think of it that way, to try to tell them apart) raised the box over its head and let out a loud hiss, like water being poured over red-hot metal. The others subsided, not all at once, but eventually they became silent. One of the last things said, from Left-End Insect, came through the box. “Show him.” Center insect let out one last hiss at this statement, then gestured towards Third-Right Insect. It did something tht cleared the display of the anime loop. In it’s place, Paul saw the scene from earlier, of the graveyard, but undisturbed. Then the camera seemed to draw back, revealing more and more ash-covered landscape. The view moved left, following a trail of gray-clad land to an ugly hole in the landscape. Out of it still spewed ash and gases. The view shifted again, moving over cities buried in ash, then, the ash was gone, but the cities were too. Now, though, they were jumbles of wreckage surrounding craters that flashed glassy in what sunlight reached the surface. Then, other images. More cities in ruin. Swaths of countryside where trees stood naked and nothing green grew. And everywhere, not a single image of a human. And what had happened was as clear as if Paul had been there to see it all. Yellowstone had erupted, decimating North America. Either in desperation, or because others saw a chance for advantage in attacking a weakened America, a nuclear war had broken out. Humanity had finished what Nature had started, the destruction of the human race.

Paul buried his face in his hands. It was all gone. His friends, his family, everything and everyone he’d ever known were nothing but memories in his head. “Why did you wake me to this? What did I do to deserve this fate?” He raised his head and shouted the last towards the heavens. But there was no answer. There was just Paul, alone on a dead planet with insects who couldn’t understand him or his culture.

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.

Death by a stream

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

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

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

“I don’t know. Are they cheap?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you?”

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

“But I never hurt nobody!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was Margaret Olesen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Play dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why do you need to find that place?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where is my child?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can we go home now, mister?”

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

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