The Reward

My life was an ordinary one.

Barring the details, it could have been lived by any other man, in any other country, in any other time.

I was born, went to school, grew up, got a job, then got married. Had kids. Had grand kids. Then the doctor gave me that long-faced announcement that I had The Big C. Mine had grown quietly in my pancreas before expanding outward to attack my other organs. He didn’t use the word hopeless to describe my chances, but his expression, his tone, they all told me it was.

The final few days were confused. Sometimes the kids were there. Other times, they were with Grace, even though she’d been dead for a decade. Those were the worst days. Every time Grace was there, her face had that disappointed look on it, like when she learned I wouldn’t get my pension because the company had used it and all the other pension contributions to buy stock back. On the final day, no one was there. I guess I couldn’t blame them. I died on a Wednesday morning, and like me, all my kids had jobs to be at.

I spent my final few moments gasping because my lungs didn’t seem to have enough air coming in. Then it was over.

Some folks insist you see a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. Me, there was none of that. One moment I was staring at the cheap ceiling tiles, then I was here. In a line with lots of other rather ordinary people. On either side, all there is to see is a barren wasteland, a place covered in loose black rocks that looked like they’d come from the sloping sides of a volcano. The line stretches before me, and behind me, too far for me to see any ending to it. And we are always in motion. Not a rapid motion, more a shuffling amble, but always we move forward.

I don’t need to ask where I am. I know where I am: Hell.

There are no demons armed with pitchforks. No rising towers of flame. There are no seas of lava filled with screaming sinners. But I know this is Hell as surely as if a huge neon sign hung in the sky announcing it was.

And I knew why I was here.

My live was one compromise after another.

Every day, I’d seen things I knew were wrong, even evil, and just turned away.

I gave myself the usual excuses for not acting.

It would be too hard to change the way things were done.

Things had always been done that way.

It didn’t effect me, so why should I care?

Every time I didn’t do the right thing, every instant when I’d remained silent, had brought me to this place. Looking at the faces of those around me, I knew they were here for the same reasons. Some of them were angry, shouting that they’d done nothing to deserve this. Others wept, lamenting the chances they’d not taken to be better than they were.

But most were like me. They knew where they were and accepted it with the same stolid attitude they’d dealt with the rest of the disappointing events in their lives.

And so here we were, the vast tide of humanity trudging to our final reward for a live spent just getting by.

The Screaming Tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How could father let him…”

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

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

That old man, how dare he…”

It’s beyond bearing, it is!”

It cannot go unanswered!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell us the tale Táin Bó Cúailnge!”

No, tell us of the forming of the Fianna!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But father, how can we got to…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

I am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

The Real Demon

Morag smiled as he watched the girl wandered down the country back lane. Oh, I am so going to have fun playing with her! He’d been stalking the inhabitants of this innocent countryside since he’d killed the sorcerer that had summoned him months ago. Morag enjoyed terrorizing the people he killed before consuming their souls. He had no fixed form, so he could assume any shape he felt like. For this girl, he chose one of his favorites: a wolf, but one ten time bigger than any normal beast. Teeth like sabers, eyes that glowed a fiery red, paws bigger than this girl’s head, Morag became the embodiment of fear.

He leapt into the lane when the girl came within a few steps of him. Stretching lips back to bare his teeth, he let out a snarl that had caused grown men to quake. But while the girl stopped, her face revealed no fear. No, for some reason, she smiled at Morag. Did she not understand she was about to die? He snarled at her again as he crouched down, gathered himself to pounce…and her smile grew wider. Is this child daft? The fact that she demonstrated no fear angering him more than he could have imagined, Morag sprang at the girl, intent on ripping her apart.

His eyes fixed on hers, time seemed to slow as he opened his jaws to grab her…then, she vanished. Morag’s jaws snapped closed as he landed, but they closed on nothing. But at the moment his teeth came together, he felt a searing pain along his left side.

Morag’s head came around and he saw a long, deep gash that ran from just behind his front leg all the way along his huge barrel chest to his back thigh. And there, standing just behind him with a knife in her hand, was the girl.

He rounded on her, but even as he opened his mouth to ask “How?”, she vanished again. And just like before, Morag felt a burning pain spread down his side, but this time, it was his right side.

The question turned into a howl of frustration, pain and rage. How could this mortal child best him? The thought formed in his mind even as another wave of pain came over him and he tottered, his left rear leg useless, it’s hamstring severed.

Now, the girl was before him. But she no longer looked like an innocent. Her face was a blood-covered mask, his blood. Her smile a grin of triumph, her eyes ablaze with hatred, she vanished again, and Morag collapsed as his left front leg’s hamstring was also severed.

Panicking, Morag tried to change shapes, and found he couldn’t.

Terror filled Morag’s heart. And as it did, the girl appeared before him. “So, demon, how does it feel? How do you enjoy terror now? Does it feel as sweet as it did when you inflicted it on your victims?” He would have replied, but the girl didn’t give him the chance.

The knife in her hand was far too small to instill the fear that now drowned Morag. No, the terror that swallowed him whole came from her eyes. He had seen every emotion from blank terror to desperate defiance in the eyes of his victims…but Morag had never seen anything like the all-consuming hatred that filled the little girl’s eyes. She stepped closer, the knife rose.

“For my parents, who you tore to pieces for pleasure.” Those were the last words the demon Morag heard.

What are monsters made of?

“Sarah!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sarah?”

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

“Sarah?”

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

“Sarah!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sarah, you have to wake up now!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ring tone

I hear the tinny, almost comical rendition of “The Ride of the Valkyries”. After so many times hearing that same string of notes, I know what it is: someone’s idea of a ‘cute’ ring tone. By this point, if I could find the person who put that ring tone online, they’d be dead, as dead as I’m about to be.

The first time I heard it, I was kicking back, reading a book as the Metra West commuter train took me to the Ogilvie and the hope of a sunny day to stroll downtown Chicago. The sound came from overhead, just the first dozen notes, then in a wave of compressed air and a flash of flames, my life ended.

The next thing I knew, there I was, reading my book again. The crappy PA blared Berkley will be the next stop, but nobody moves. Sitting in the middle of a massive rail yard, nobody gets off at Berkley on the weekends. The stop is brief, and as we start rolling again, I hear the same music. I die realizing I’m stuck in a macabre version of “Groundhog Day” where I relive my death over and over.

The third time, and I get out of my seat, and everyone stares at me. Like me, most of them know nobody will get off or on at Berkley, and they wonder why I am out of my seat. But I will only have a moment to find out where the tone comes from, and with it, the bomb connected to the phone. My ears told me the last time that it was in front of me, so I charge away from the doors towards the front of the car. Again, the announcement comes forth and the train slows to a stop. I should get off. Even as the cowardly part of my mind thinks the thought, my heart rebels against the idea. The train starts to move, and the ring tone begins. It’s behind me now, and I turn towards it. I see five bags vanish in a flash, and I die again.

The fourth time and I am out of my seat even as I realize I am back again. Without thinking, I grab the red shopping bag with the C-Span logo on it which is nearest to me down from the overhead rack. A woman just behind me shouts protests. It holds a list of events at a literary event dated to occur today, but nothing more. I drop it and grab another shopping bag, this one black with the logo of a local grocery chain. I have time to look in it and see a single book before the ring tone starts and everything disappears in a flaming blast.

Everything is as it was. I am holding my book again, but I drop it as I jump to my feet. Only three bags left. One of them is mine, the black backpack I carry when I go into the city, so that can’t be the bag. I ignore it and the two I remember looking into to grab another backpack. It’s a dark-blue pack with a battered leather bottom, and I notice it’s heavy. Both zippers are together on one end of their track, and as I pull the upper one around, it snags on the nylon overlying it. The PA blares out “Berkley. The next stop will be Berkley.” and I force the zipper back away from the fabric stopping it before pulling it open enough to reveal…an old laptop that is consumed with me by the blast from above.

I drop my book the moment I return. I stand and reach for the last backpack, a pink kid’s pack with a rainbow in the lower corner. It too is heavy, like the last one I looked into. I try to be calm so I can open it without jamming the zipper, and it works. But inside it are coloring books and crayons, not explosives. I stare at them as the PA repeats it’s announcement and the same stupid notes come down from over my head before my world disappears in flames again.

I am back again, and I remember my wife handing me my backpack as I left. How it felt heavier than it normally did. The strange way she smiled at me after I kissed her cheek and told her my usual “See you when I get back.” As the PA comes to life again, it dawns on me. She knows what I really do in Chicago. I walk around, but in Chinatown, and what I’m looking for is massage parlors that offer not massages, but sex. Could my wife build something like a pipe bomb hooked to a phone? As I disappear again, I know that she could, and that the ringtone is her message to me. The Valkyries didn’t just collect the valiant dead, they also brought vengeance. And this is her revenge on me.

The disappearance.

“Okay, remember, I’ll count to ten, then I’ll come find you! Ready….start! One….two…”

My eyes are closed, but I hear my children run off, laughing as they go. In a single-floored ranch like ours, it’s not hard to tell which way they’re going. I hear Kevin and Lisa’s footsteps echo as they dash down the hall.

“three….four….five…”

The muffle screech of a hinge in need of oiling tells me they’ve gone into the room they share. I hear murmured words, too indistinct to make out, and know they’re trying to figure out where they’ll hide.

“six….seven…..eight….”

The slight rasping noise of a sliding door opening and closing lets me know they’re hiding in their closet. Now, to make a show of finding them.

“nine….ten….ready or not, here I come!”

I make sure to be as loud as I can as I make my mock search of the house, opening doors and calling out as I wander around. “Where can they be? Those kids have gotten too good at hiding for me!” I hear them giggling as I fling their door open. “Could they be in here?” The closet take up most of one wall opposite their beds, and I hear Kevin hushing Lisa as I approach it. My fingers slip into the recesses on the opposing sliding doors and I slide them aside with a shout of “Found you!”

But there’s nobody in the closet, there’s nothing in the closet.

All of Lisa’s dresses, her tops, Kevin’s jeans and the pile of dirty clothing he insists on leaving in the closet….all of it is gone. The entire space is empty, not even an errant sock lies on the floor. But as I stand there, stunned by the sudden change, I hear them. They’re still giggling like they’ve put one over on Mommy for once and managed to hide from her.

I slap the back wall, push against it at different spots hoping that somewhere there’s a hidden door, some trick that’s allowing my children to hide not just themselves but all the clothing I know they have from me. But the wall is solid, as is the floor when I stomp on it in the vain hope of finding a trap door.

“Kevin! Lisa! Do you hear me! Come out this instant!”

There is no answer beyond more giggles, and I begin to panic. Could I have been mistaken and they hid in the master bedroom? I go out the door, thrust open the door to the room my husband and I sleep in, and begin searching.

Nothing. They’re not in our closet, nor in the bathroom adjoining our room. Could they be under our bed? On hands and knees, I peer into the dim space under our king-sized bed, and see nothing but a few dust bunnies in need of cleaning up.

Could they be under their beds?

I hadn’t thought of such a possibility, sure as I was that they’d hidden in their closet, but now I rush back to look. I find nothing, not even the favorite well-worn teddy bear Lisa keeps hidden under her bed so it is close at hand on stormy nights. But even as I look, I can hear my children laughing quietly, and quite close at hand.

“Kevin! Lisa! This is not funny! Come out at once!” Nothing, just the same occasional murmur of gleeful giggles. “Do you hear me? I said come out!”

But they don’t come out, they don’t suddenly pop up to bask in their joy at having frightened their mother. I cross the hall, intent on going through the small bathroom the children use. It has the same fixtures, right down to the slight crack in the glazing on the sink, but it is empty of anything personal. The children’s toothbrushes, the battered stainless steel comb Kevin inherited from his grandfather, even Lisa’s collection of hair clips, all of it is gone.

I search the rest of the house, panic tightening my chest as every attempt to find Kevin and Lisa proves fruitless. There is no place for them to hide in our back yard, but I look anyway. Again, nothing.

Now, the panic is all-consuming, a thing that has swallowed me, an ocean that threatens to drown me. I call 911.

“Carswell’s Corner 911, please state the nature of the emergency.”

“It’s my children! They’ve gone missing, disappeared!”

“Where did you last see your children, miss?”

“In my kitchen. I was playing hide and seek with them, and they’re not here. I’ve been through the whole house, I’ve searched every room, and I can’t find them anywhere!”

A moment of silence, then the disembodied voice comes back. “Miss, I’m showing you’re location as 127 Wolff Road, is that correct?”

“Yes, yes, that’s where I live! Please, can you get someone here to help me find my children?”

“Yes, miss, I’ve dispatched a car, they should be there shortly. Please stay on the line until they arrive miss.”

“Yes, of course, anything, just get them here to help me search!”

Another, longer moment of silence, then I hear a car, driving fast, coming up the road. The engine noise drops, the screech of tires stopping fast, and I see flashing lights out the front window. “Miss, officers should be in front of your house now. Can you open the door for them?”

I rush to the front door, yank it open, and a pair of men in uniform are waiting. One is older, tall and slender, his hair going gray. The other is short and heavy set, his dark hair buzz-cut short. Neither of them look happy. I don’t care if they’re happy or not.

“Officers, I’m glad you got here so quickly. I need your help. My children have managed to find a hiding place in the house that I can’t find. I need you to help me get them out.”

The younger man looks disgusted, like he’d just heard someone tell the biggest lie of all time. The older man just looks sad as he speaks to me.

“Mrs. Sanchez, how many more times are we going to have to come here? We’ve searched your house more times than I can remember, with you right behind us. Every time, we’ve never found any kids, and that’s because you’ve never had any kids!” He scrubs a hand over his face and shakes his head. “I’ve told you before, if you keep calling us, we’re going to arrest you for filing a false police report. I’m not going to do that this time….but this is your last warning. If I, or any other officer, have to come here again, you’re going to go to jail. Now, have I made myself clear?”

Is he insane? I remember my children. The hours I spent in labor before Kevin came out. How Lisa had always been sick as a baby, but had grown to be a force of nature. I remember every time they fell. Every scrape on their knees. Every day home from school for a fever. Everything. ”But officer….”

He didn’t give me the chance to finish. “I don’t want to hear it again. I mean it. We’re going now. Your husband should be home soon, so you can tell that poor sorry bastard all about it. God knows how he puts up with someone as crazy as you.”

And that was it. He turned and walked away, his young partner giving me a final, sickened stare before following him. They weren’t going to help. They didn’t care. They thought I was insane, people who believed something as crazy as me never having any children. I close the door knowing I’ll have no help.

I have to find them. I have to. I can hear their giggles, but where are they?

Wait…what?

I open the door again. My door is stained wood, but not this door. It’s red, and not some calm brick red either. No, it’s a bright, almost garish red, the sort most people would call ‘fire-engine red’ I hate red, especially bright reds. Did some vandal paint it this hideous color?

Then I look closer, and see the wear around the door knob. The scratched paint near the lock. There are scuff marks at the bottom, some of them old enough to have started fading.

What is happening here?

 

The face in the mirror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I got sick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you afraid, murderer?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You wanted a sister?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, no reason, no reason at all.”

Death goes home

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

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

But Anne Coulett was dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.