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When I was 11, my dad and I tried to make our own maple syrup. (I don’t know how he convinced a rebellious girl on the verge of tweenhood to embark on such a project, but somehow, he did.)

So one chilly, February morning, we woke up early and went out to the large maple tree in the backyard. Setting up the tap was easy – Dad drilled the hole, and we hammered the spile in together. Within minutes, clear sap was dripping into the soda bottle we attached underneath.

“Check the bottle each morning,” Dad said, with a smile, “and write down how much we collected.”

“It’s the coolest project ever,” I told my friend, Shelby, on the bus to school. It felt good to put her in her place – she was always bragging about how she lives on a farm. “Dad lets me feed the pigs and milk the cows,” she would say, flipping her hair. “And he pays me for it. I basically have a job, and I’m only twelve.”

But her dad was a total weirdo. Mine was cool, and gave me cool projects to work on.

Anyway.

On the morning of February 27th, I approached the tree as usual – skipping in the snow, humming Walkin’ on Sunshine through the heavy scarf around my face. I walked around to the tap, and peered in.

I gasped.

The bottle was halfway filled with dark, reddish liquid.

Not clear sap.

I ran back to the house. “Mom! Dad!” I yelled. “There’s something wrong!”

Dad followed me out into the backyard, not looking very concerned. I don’t blame him. Last time I pulled him out here, it was because I found “monster footprints” in the snow.

Also known as raccoon footprints.

“The syrup is dark now,” I said, pointing rapidly at the bottle. “What happened? Did we ruin it?”

To this day, I don’t think I’ve seen my dad so shocked. His face went white, matching the surrounding snow, and his mouth hung open. “It’s – it’s fine,” he stuttered, pulling the bottle from the tree. “But I’ll bring it in and take a look at it.”

He detached the bottle, and brought it inside. I followed. “Go get ready for school. I’ll take care of this.”

“I am ready.”

He sighed. “Go, uh, get me the encyclopedia from my study, will you?”

As I walked down the hall, Mom’s whispers to him echoed towards me.

“What is it?”

“I don’t know.” A sharp inhale. “It smells metallicy. What do you think?”

“I’m not sniffing that!”

“Okay. Fine.”

“I knew this whole maple syrup thing was dumb. The tree is probably diseased or something. Don’t let her near it!”

“Okay, but –”

“And get the rest of it out of the basement! I don’t even have enough space for laundry anymore.”

I walked back into the kitchen with the encyclopedia, and they fell silent.

“I’ll drive you to school,” Mom said, grabbing her keys and shooting a glare at Dad.


When I got home, they seemed even more stressed.

“Michaela,” Dad said, sitting me down, “don’t go near the tree, okay?”

“Why?”

“We – uh – just don’t, okay?”

Apparently, my dad didn’t understand the concept of forbidden fruit. Now that he said it, I had to go back to the tree.

So after my parents went to bed that night, I snuck out of my room, grabbed a flashlight, and ran into the backyard. It was bitterly cold, and the icy wind blew through my pajamas as if they were made of tissue paper. But I soldiered forward, until I was standing underneath the maple.

As the beam of light fell over it, I saw a long red streak staining the bark, emanating from the spile.

As if it were bleeding.

I touched my fingers to it. They came away wet and red, and a chill coursed through my body.

Blood?

Is that what that dark stuff was, earlier?

I walked around the tree, my flashlight bouncing off the bark. As I did, I realized – there was a deep crack that ran horizontally across it.

But it was too long, too perfect, to be a natural crack.

I poked and prodded the groove with my fingers. The bark shifted and jiggled. I jabbed my fingernails in it, and pulled, until a large panel of bark fell away.

It hit the snow with a dull thump.

And I screamed.

Stuffed into a cavity of the trunk, still and lifeless, was the carcass of a pig. And in its belly was a small hole –

Where the spile had been attached.

I leapt back from the tree, screaming. The beam of my flashlight caught on the snow. And in it, there was a fresh set of footprints, leading up to the tree…

But none leading away.

I sprinted across the snow. I locked the door behind me.

And then I glanced out the window.

In the darkness, I could make out a shadow, climbing down from the branches of the maple tree.

428
Posted byAug 16, Single 178 hours agoGilded1

My daddy put the “good” in good old boy. He was hardworking, stoic, and he kept his mouth shut unless there was something that needed saying. All he wanted out of life as to drive his trucks, make his living, and take care of his wife and kids; the rest was just background noise.

I used to like to join him on his shorter hauls, the ones that were just going across state. It gave us some Guy Time, which we didn’t get much of back home with Mama and my three sisters. Just me, Daddy, and hours of open road. Sitting up in the cab of his big rig, looking down at all the smaller cars below us, made me feel tall. It made me feel important.

Daddy made sure to keep me grounded, though. He used those drives to share his quiet wisdom with me, which I didn’t always immediately understand or appreciate, but that I always recognized as being Important.

“You mind nobody’s business but your own, Sawyer. World’s a hard enough place without judging each other all the time. You don’t know their story, you don’t get to decide what kinda folk they are.”

“Be respectful to everybody, ain’t nothing good come from flapping your gums, but if it comes down to it and they’re begging for a lesson, you lay them low and you lay them quick and then you walk away. You never wanna start something, but you can damn well finish it.”

“If you can help someone, do it. Don’t be one of them gawkers on the sidelines. You want somebody to be there for you, you gotta be willing to do the same.”

There was something almost magic about listening to Daddy’s slow, southern drawl over the truck’s rumbling while the sun set in our rear view mirror and I’d look up at him and think he had to be the smartest man around.

Other than the conversations with Daddy, my favorite part of riding with him was the truck stops. Back then, they were small diners with big lots and a couple showers out back, nothing fancy, but we didn’t need anything more. On our regular routes, I knew a lot of the waitresses on a first name basis and was familiar with a lot of the other truckers, but there were some roads we didn’t go down much, and those were the most exciting. It was like an adventure every time we took a turn I didn’t recognize!

On this particular run, Daddy almost didn’t take me. It was one I’d never accompanied him on and I was eager to go, but he seemed hesitant.

“Weather ain’t supposed to be great,” he said.

“I don’t mind!” I replied.

“Gonna be bumpy; roads are worn.”

“That’s ok!”

“It’s a long one, Sawyer.”

“I’ll bring a book. C’mon, Daddy, please?”

Daddy eyeballed me for a long moment, his mustache bristling slightly as it always did when he was deep in thought, and finally, he nodded.

We left the next afternoon after an early supper. Mama stood on the porch and waved us out of the driveway as we headed to the depot to pick up the trailer we were going to be hauling.

There’s something real nice about nighttime driving. The world’s dark and quiet and, out on those old country highways, it often feels like you have it all to yourself. Daddy would turn on one of his cassettes and he’d mumble along with it under his breath, the words getting half lost in his mustache, and I’d rest my head against the window and watch the road pass quickly beneath us.

We got four hours into the trip before Daddy had to pull into a stop. A bad back and a bum leg made it so he couldn’t sit for as long as he used to and we’d have to get out so he could move around and work out all the kinks that’d settled in his joints. The lot was almost empty when we rolled up; there were a few trucks scattered about and I could see a couple folks sitting in the 24 hour diner, but otherwise, it was just me and Daddy.

As we parked, I couldn’t help but notice the almost nervous glances he kept shooting around from beneath the brim of his baseball cap that he always wore, even after it got dark.

“Something the matter?” I asked while unbuckling my seatbelt.

“No,” he said, “just keeping an eye out.”

“For what?”

“Nothing. You want a snack?”

We hopped out of the cab and started for the diner. Daddy’s hand rested on my shoulder while we walked and I grinned up at him. We’d just about made it to the door when I noticed a lady leaning against the wall, all the way down at the corner. She was dressed in what Mama would have called “little more than a smile”, and smile she did as we approached.

“Heya, Tuck,” she said in a purr.

“Tawny,” Daddy replied, touching his fingertips to the brim of his cap.

“That your son?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You a good boy?” She asked me. When her dark eyes came to rest on me, I shuffled shyly against Daddy’s side, which made her giggle softly.

Daddy’s fingers tightened just a bit around my shoulder. “Yup.” He said.

“That’s good, Tuck, that’s real good.”

“Sure is. You take care now, Tawny.”

“Always.”

I’d heard other truckers talking about girls like Tawny. They called them lot lizards; they hung out at truck stops and liked to keep the truckers company. When I’d first heard the term, I thought it sounded pretty neat and asked Daddy if I could be a lot lizard when I got older; I liked keeping him and his pals company, it made sense! Daddy had almost bust a gut laughing so hard, and when he had me repeat it to Mama, she turned bright red.

After he’d wiped his eyes and calmed down, he told me not to call them that.

“It’s not a nice phrase,” he said. “We dunno why the ladies like that do what they do, but we ain’t gonna be making any assumptions, are we, Sawyer? You just call ‘em by their names if you know ‘em, be polite, and mind your own business.”

I still didn’t know what a “lot lizard” was or what they did, but if Daddy said it wasn’t a good thing to call somebody, then I wasn’t gonna say it.

We left Tawny leaning against the building and went into the diner. While Daddy grabbed a coffee, I walked the length of the counter to the restroom. It was dated and dingy inside, but had the very specific truck stop charm I’d come to know and love. The two waitresses working smiled and called us “hon” and the truckers nodded and I felt right at home.

When I came back out, Daddy was chatting with another guy at the counter over steaming mugs. I sat beside them for a while, but lost interest in whatever they were talking about pretty quickly and decided I wanted to run back out to the truck to grab my book. I didn’t bother saying anything to Daddy; I’d only be gone a minute, I doubted he’d even notice.

I slid off the stool and left Daddy to his coffee and conversation.

Tawny wasn’t standing beside the diner anymore when I got back outside. She was over by a truck that must have pulled in when I was using the bathroom, smiling and laughing at its young driver. She glanced at me as I jogged past and I mimed touching the brim of a hat to her, same as Daddy had done, but her attention was back on the trucker pretty quick.

My book was in the sleeper portion of the cab and I had to rifle through my duffel to get it out. I checked to make sure my bookmark was still in place and then crawled back out.

The trucker and Tawny weren’t by the cab anymore when I passed by again.

Instead, I caught sight of them going around the side of the diner. The trucker seemed to be dragging Tawny and she was tugging at her arm, trying to pull it away from him. Her smile was gone.

“Stop it,” I thought I heard her say.

At nine years old, I was more curious than concerned. I knew adults had disagreements and sometimes liked to talk about them in private, but I’d never seen a man pull a woman along like that before. When Mama and Daddy had their arguments, they left the room together, sure, but he’d never laid a hand on her like that.

Mama also never said no like Tawny did as she disappeared from sight.

I lingered in place, torn between going to tell my daddy what I’d seen and wanting to check on Tawny myself. Daddy always said to mind our own business, but he also told me to be ready to help other people. If they were just two grown ups talking, I didn’t want to interfere and risk getting in trouble myself, but if Tawny had said no, then the trucker should have let her go!

When I heard Tawny say no again, a little louder than before, I crept along the wall towards the side of the diner. I’d just take a little peak, make sure she was ok.

A brief scuffle and a short, frightened cry made me pause again, but when silence followed, I gathered my courage again and poked my head around the building.

It was dark out there, lit only by the glow from the street lights in the parking lot. I could make out two shapes in the gloom, one on top of the other. The one on the ground wasn’t moving. Over the sound of my quickening heartbeat, I heard a strange, wet crunching sound that reminded me of my dog chewing on a cow bone.

As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I realized it wasn’t Tawny lying there, so still.

It was the trucker.

Tawny was crouched on top of him. At least, it was a thing that resembled Tawny. It had the same cropped top and cut off jean shorts, the same boots with pink accents, the same long, dyed red hair, but this…thing’s head had split vertically, clean down the middle, and a row of long teeth glistened even in the dim light. As I watched, it dipped down and tore a chunk of flesh out of the trucker’s stomach.

A squeal of terror that I hadn’t even been aware of erupted out of my mouth.

The creature that Daddy had called Tawny twisted suddenly, its split head releasing a hiss, and those dark eyes she’d fixed on me earlier rolled towards me again.

I screamed properly that time. My book fell from my hand and I scrambled back towards the diner’s door, away from Tawny and the unmoving trucker. I was sure she’d be behind me, pursuing me, trying to sink her teeth into me, and it made me cry out again, desperately wailing for my daddy.

He caught me in his arms at the door and yanked me inside.

I pointed and shouted that the lady ate the man, but Daddy just carried me to the counter and sat with me on his lap and told me gently to shush, that it was ok. The other truckers and waitresses carried on with barely a glance towards us.

“Daddy, Tawny, she-she…” I couldn’t even say the words. I’m not even sure I had them at the time. What I’d just seen was too far outside of the sheltered realm of my childhood.

“Don’t pay no mind to Tawny,” he said quietly.

“But she —”

“She been here a long time, Sawyer,” he kept his voice low and soothing and I could see him trying to decide how much he wanted to tell me. “As long as you don’t bother her, you don’t gotta be afraid of her.”

“But there was a guy!”

“There are lots of guys, son, and they ain’t all good.”

There were women in the world, Daddy told me, who had to do things that could be dangerous in order to get by. Women who looked like Tawny and hung out at truck stops, waiting to keep the truckers company. Sometimes, bad things happened to those women, but because of what they did, most people didn’t care and nothing was done.

And nothing is exactly what had been done when a 20 year old girl with dyed red hair in a crop top, cut off jeans, and boots with pink accents went missing twenty years before.

She’d been working around the truck stop for a couple months when she disappeared. People agreed it had to have been one of the truckers, but trying to track down which one it was was viewed as a waste of time and resources.

Tawny McMichaels was all but written off and forgotten.

Right up until the rumors started. People who knew of her claimed that they’d seen Tawny at truck stops all over the state, although the one we were at, where she’d disappeared from, was the most popular place; always wearing the same thing, always after dark. She was friendly, they’d say, but never approached anyone. She let them come to her.

The older guys, the ones who’d been on the job awhile like Daddy, steered clear of Tawny. They were a superstitious lot and they accepted and believed things more readily than a lot of others might without question; Tawny was one of those things. The younger ones who didn’t know any better, though, were another story.

They were given three chances, or so the tale went.

Three chances to turn back after Tawny said no.

Three chances to walk away.

Three chances to live.

Tawny was more fair than others had been to her.

“Is...is she a monster, Daddy?” I whispered, my fear making it impossible for me to speak any louder.

His mustache bristled slightly. “You know how I’m always telling you to be respectful, mind yourself, be kind, right up until someone comes begging for a lesson?”

I nodded into his shoulder.

“Tawny ain’t a monster, boy,” he said, “she’s just the hardest lesson some people are ever gonna learn.”

382

My name is Stu, but sometimes people call me other names. My favorite one is simple. The people who call me that are nicer than the people who call me other stuff. Mommy was one of the nice people. So is my neighbor, Joey. Mommy said bein’ simple was good. She said the Good Lord made me simple, so it’s okay if there’s stuff I don’t understand.

Joey's six years old. He asked how old I am, but I don’t know. I used to keep count. I stopped when I ran out of toes. I’m too old for school. That’s fine by me. I never liked it because the desks were too small. I guess I’m not old enough to work, because no one will give me a job. Even though I’m big like men with jobs.

Mommy taught me to be nice. She was one of the nice people who called me simple. She called me other names too like sweet boy 'n sugar muffin. She said my job is to help. Everyone needs help sometimes, she said. My job is to help 'em. If I didn’t always know how, that was okay. The Good Lord made me simple, so it’s okay if there’s stuff I don’t understand.

Me 'n Joey played hide-n-seek. I can count to ten by usin' all my fingers 'n no toes. Joey is good at hidin'. He was standin' behind the couch 'n I couldn’t find him. Then he was it. I stood behind the couch too, but he found me right off. I don’t know how, but that’s okay. The Good Lord made me simple, so it’s okay if there’s stuff I don’t understand.

One time our town had a big storm. Next mornin' I saw two cats playin' hide-n-seek. Ain't it funny cats play games too? I really only saw one cat, but he was tryin' to hide under a big ole tree limb, so I figured there was another cat countin' to ten somewhere. My job is to help, so I helped the cat hide better.

He could only fit his tail under the tree limb. Cats ain't very good at hidin' I guess. He was stickin' half way out. He’d get caught for sure! Then he’d be it. I picked up the tree limb 'n set it back down so he was covered up better. It was heavy, but I’m big like the men with jobs. When I was done, you could hardly see him at all. He made a loud noise when I put the limb down. I think he was sayin' "thank you."

Yesterday I helped Joey learn to swim. He said no one ever taught him before. We went out to the creek where the water’s nice and cold. It’s deep too. Perfect for swimmin'. Joey was scared to swim because no one had taught him. He was scared of the water and wouldn't get in. My job is to help, so I gave him a little push.

He sure was bad at swimmin'. He went straight to the bottom like a rock that’s done skippin'. He didn’t come back up. I figured he was tired of swimmin' and we were playin' hide-n-seek again. I closed my eyes 'n counted to ten. He was still hidin', so I went to look somewhere else.

Today the police man came by. He was looking for Joey. That boy sure is good at hidin'. I told them not to worry, that we were just playin'. I told them he might be at the creek, since I taught him to swim. They came back later 'n told me I had to go with them.

Joey’s mama was crying somethin’ awful. I guess she's sad I’m leaving. The police say I can’t come back for a while. I sat in the back of the car 'n we rode all the way to the station where police men live.

They told me to write what happened. They say I did something bad. I told them I’m nice like Mommy was. I told them my job is to help, but they just shook their heads. I don’t think they understand, but that’s okay.

I guess the Good Lord made them simple too.

284

I teach at a small school in a mountainous region in the United States. On good years, we have maybe twenty students grades kindergarten through eighth. I handle the littles, my husband handles the older kids. It’s not a job you take if you want a secure lifestyle with a luxurious retirement, but it is one you take when you care about the future of children.

Alma was a first grader and very bright. I ended up having to give her the second grader’s books by the end of the first quarter and knew by Christmas she’d likely be caught up to the fourth graders. She always raised her hand and never spoke out of turn.

But she was also a bit strange.

Alma rarely spoke in general, preferring just to remain in the corner coloring rather than participate in activities or talk to her friends. And after a while I came to realize that she didn’t seem to have any friends at all. The other kids didn’t pick on her, far from it. They didn’t even seem to realize she was there. And I’m embarrassed to say even I occasionally overlooked her. Other kids just needed my attention more.

But then we had Parent’s Day.

Parent’s Day happened every fall. We invited the parents of the children to tour the school and talk about current projects, we’d order pizza and play games on the playground. It was always a great time.

At least one parent would always try to make it, and if they couldn’t, grandparents were just as welcome. But Alma arrived alone and didn’t make space for her parents at her desk… and that worried me.

I excused myself from talking with Brent’s parents and made my way over to her.

“Alma?”

She looked up from her drawing, a very cheerful picture of smiling dogs. “Yes, Mrs. Riggs?” She said, her voice so soft I could barely hear it.

I made a bit of a show to look around. “Where’s your mom or dad? Will they be arriving in time for lunch? It’s pizza lunch, after all!”

“They don’t want to come. They don’t like going into the school.”

That took me by shock. After all, Alma was such a bright child.

“Oh. How about your grandma? Or grandpa?”

“I don’t have any.”

I’m used to how children state things like that so matter of factly. Still, my heart ached for poor Alma, all alone while seeing everyone with their parents. I smiled and gestured to my desk. “How about you sit with me today then? I’m a bit lonely eating by myself after all.“

“Thank you, Mrs. Riggs, but if I sit there, I can’t see them,” Alma said as pointed out the window.

Frowning, I looked as well. Just across the field was the thick forest, full of gorgeous pine trees that always made the school smell a little woodsy.

“Who can’t you see, Alma?”

Alma shrugged as she folded her picture in half and put it in her bookbag.

“My parents, Mrs. Riggs.”

During the whole day, Alma hardly budged from her spot, consistently looking out the window. Occasionally I’d see a flash of a grin across her face, I even caught her waving once.

There wasn’t anyone out there of course. And although it broke my heart that her parents willingly deceived her like that, I didn’t tell her to stop. It made her happy after all.

The more I watched Alma, the more things I found out about this strange and lonely girl. During morning recess, she would go sit on the swings, and stay there the entire time while chattering to herself. I discreetly listened in a few times, and I made out a few names of imaginary friends. Luca, Naomi, Samson, Goliath. She’d tell them about all she was learning, about how fun math was and how she couldn’t wait for lunch, as Luca seemed to always pack them. Her lunches would always consist of the same thing- a piece of bread and a slice or two of salami. She never seem like she was starving, but it wouldn’t hurt to throw the girl a bologna sandwich or an apple.

I lost my temper when her parents skipped out on the parent teacher conference.

It was nearing the end of the first semester, snow covered the ground, everyone was excited for Christmas and winter break, and I made time to talk with the parents of each of my students. I’d work with their schedules, I even had to have a few before school. It never bothered me. I just wanted to help my students the best I could.

However, whenever I’d ask Alma about her parents, she’d dodge the question or turn down whatever time I offered. I was beginning to run out of patience when finally she said that Friday night would work.

I prepared myself for whatever could come my way. Inattentive, always on their phones. Drug addicts. Or just generally rude and sassy.

I wasn’t prepared for the no show.

Alma marched up to my desk and sat down, folding her hands. I looked around.

“Where’s your mother?” I asked.

Alma grinned, that grin a child gets when they think they figured something out. She set on the desk an old fashioned tape recorder, one that was a little beat up and scuffed around the edges, but it worked when Alma clicked record.

“They can’t make it, Mrs. Riggs. But here, you tell them what you need them to know, and I’ll take this to them!”

I was flabbergasted. For a second, I actually leaned forward and began. “Well… actually there’s not much to…” I couldn’t do it. I turned it off.

“I’m sorry, Alma, but your parents have to be here in person.”

Alma’s shoulders sagged and her expression fell. “But…”

“No buts, Alma.” I was putting my foot down. “They might have questions for me that I’ll have to answer, and I have ones for them as well. I’ll do whatever I need to, Alma. Should we do this at your home? If your parents can’t make it to the school-”

“No!”

Alma jumped like she’d been struck, rapidly shaking her head no. “No, I’m… I’m sorry, Mrs. Riggs, but you… you can’t come to my home. You can’t.”

My mind began to wander to much more disturbing conclusions.

“Are your parents hurting you, Alma?”

Alma rapidly shook her head no, but I could still see so much fear in her eyes. “My parents l-love me Mrs. Riggs… but you can’t come to my house. They won’t like it. They’ll get angry…” Alma shoved her tape recorder in her bag. “I can’t say anything else. I’m sorry, Mrs. Riggs.”

And like a wisp of smoke in the wind, she had fled from my classroom.

I looked outside and watched Alma’s small form running across the field, onto the path that wound through the forest.

And then I grabbed my coat and my flashlight to follow her.

It was bitterly cold, the night already starting to darken the sky. But I am a teacher. And a teacher doesn’t just let something like this slip by.

The snow crunched under my shoes as I walked through the forest. I knew Alma couldn’t have gotten far, but I avoided turning on my flashlight. I didn’t want to spook her.

Thankfully, it was easy enough to make out the pair of tiny footprints in the waning light. The footprints turned off the path sharply and past a bush. I pushed past it to see a well-worn trail. I clicked on the flashlight.

Now I could make out two pairs of footprints. Alma’s tiny shoes and a pair of large boots, the kind a man would wear. I knelt down to examine them, tracing my fingers along the treads.

A branch snapped behind me and I spun around, dropping the flashlight when I saw a dark shape behind me.

The dark shape that was just a giant, black dog.

An enormous Tibetan mastiff, his shaggy head cocked to the side as he looked back at me. I sighed with relief and rested my hand on my chest. Alma did love to draw dogs, perhaps this one belonged to her.

“Hello there. I’m looking for a student of mine, I don’t suppose you could find her?”

The mastiff ‘wuffed’ before treading off, and I was once again alone in the forest. I shook my head. “Silly me, talking to dogs,” I murmured before turning around and starting to follow the footprints.

The tree’s branches slowly closed over me and I felt like I was walking into the mouth of a beast. The thorny brush catching my ankles were its teeth.

I had the feeling I was being watched.

I flashed my light through the trees, looking to see if perhaps that dog was back. My light flashed along a lumpy shape in a branch and I moved it back.

The creature in the trees stared back at me, its red eyes reflecting red from my flashlight.

I dropped the light, my jaw dropped. The light wasn’t focused on the beastly thing anymore, but I could make out its silhouette and the faint glow of its baseball sized eyes.

Then it screamed and dived above my head.

I threw myself to the ground, hitting the snow bank. Its claws carved above my brow and then it flew away, laughing like a shrill hyena.

I rolled over, only to hear my heart beat thudding in my ears. I reached up to see how bad the cut was, feeling blood welling up in a slender cut.

“It… it was an owl. It was an owl.”

Even if it was shaped like a man and had a mouth full of spiny teeth. It was an owl.

It had to be an owl.

I stumbled down the path, my flashlight starting to flicker and brown out. I knew I had to go back. I’d have to return during the day, with the police, I resolved as I turned around. However, I didn’t think of the falling snow. The snow which had now hid my footprints, and I became lost.

I pulled my coat over my fingers, the cold causing them to ache. My flashlight flickered out and my heart sunk when it didn’t turn back on.

“No, no!” I shook it wildly about, whacked it a few times. Nothing. Night had fully set its claws in me and I was truly lost.

I felt my eyes start to water and my glasses began to fog over. I took them off to clean them.

“… Lost?”

The voice sounded like ice cracking on the river. I froze and spun around, lifting my glasses up. “Hello?”

I was tackled into the ground. I slammed my head on a rock, my vision nearly going black before it returned in a haze.

A face came into my blurry vision, sharp and cold, with glowing red eyes.

“Nosy. All of you.”

Thick, smelly saliva dripped onto my cheek.

“You can’t have her. We take care of her now. We thought you’d learn after the first two never returned. Now that number has to be four.”

I felt several sharp teeth brush my throat before I heard a scream.

“Papa! No! Please no, papa! That’s Mrs. Riggs!”

The man froze.

I heard a pair of small footsteps run up. “Papa, it’s not a social worker, it’s not like the man who followed me today! She’s my teacher! She’s just scared, papa, I didn’t bring her, I promise! Don’t hurt her!”

I had never heard Alma cry until now.

The man, her ‘papa’, drew away from me.

“Make her leave.”

“Okay, Papa.”

Alma knelt beside me and took my hand. Her eyes were overflowing with tears, and she hiccuped as she apologized. “I-I’m so s-sorry, Mrs. Riggs! I’m so sorry!”

I reached up, touching her face.

“It’s… it’s okay, Alma. Can you get my phone? I hit my head, and I’m feeling very cold.”

“I have something better. Luca, here boy…”

Alma half lifted me onto the hairy, smelly animal, and it took me a second to realize that it was a dog.

I woke up in the hospital. I was dropped off in the early hours with a concussion and likely would’ve developed hypothermia if I’d been out there the whole night. The nurses had no idea who dropped me off. They’d just found me unconscious outside.

My coat was still covered in dog hair.

Now I watch Alma go home every day, from the windows.

And although if I’d blink I’d miss it, sometimes I see a pale man and a dog, waiting in the shade of the trees.

2.5k

Three weeks ago I went to see my best friend Kameko in Japan. I had recently had problems with a guy I dated, Chet, turning stalkery when I broke things off, and I wanted some time away from dealing with that. More importantly, I was excited both because I’ve never been to the country (or much of anywhere), and I hadn’t seen her in person since a few weeks after college graduation, which had been almost five years ago. She had lived in Tokyo for a couple of years when she moved back, but when her grandmother had died, she inherited the woman's home out in the country about 20km from Osaki. It was a large house that been in the family for generations, and based on the pictures she had sent me, I was excited to stay in such a neat place too.  

She came to pick me up at the airport, and after hugging and talking excitedly for a few minutes, we headed to her car. She seemed just the same as she always had—smart, funny, and full of life—but I know her too well. I could see something was worrying her as we drove through the beautiful countryside, her pointing out this cool thing or that historic site with a fluidity that made me wonder if she was making up some of the facts and names as she went. I laughed inwardly at the idea of her making up tourist facts, but when she took a break from pointing things out, I asked her if everything was okay.  

She glanced at me with a nervous smile. “You always do that. Yeah, everything is okay, but I’ve been debating on when to tell you about the….unique feature of my house.”  

I had been smiling back, but I felt the expression slipping away at her tone. “What’s that?”  

“Well, you know this is an old house I have, right? My great-great grandparents built it over a hundred years ago. And I had never even been to it while my grandmother was alive.” I could tell she was trying to build up her courage to get it out, and before I could respond, she finally did. “Well, the house is kinda haunted? Kinda not really?” Her voice went up at the end like she was asking for my confirmation.  

I raised an eyebrow. I had been expecting her to say the plumbing was bad or that the wiring was wonky. Not this. And kinda? What did that even…  

“What I mean is, it’s not a ghost. It’s a yokai. Which I can tell you don’t know what that is. Ok. Its kind of a general term for a wide variety of creatures and spirits in Japanese folklore. And apparently they’re real, at least some of them, because I have one.”  

I felt disoriented. I’d have thought it was a practical joke, but Kameko hated pranks and I could tell she was serious. I considered if she was on drugs or having a mental issue, but knowing her, that seemed unlikely too. So I decided to just roll with it.  

“Okay. Weird. So what kind of thing do you have? Can you see it?”  

She nodded slowly. “Oh yeah. And it sounds way creepier than it is. Its just a really big spider.”  

Unexpectedly, a burst of laughter pushed its way out of my throat. “Fuck. I thought you were serious.”  

Kameko was frowning and shaking her head, her eyes going between me and the road. “I am. And its not really a spider, at least not a normal spider. But its about the size of…well, like that show Lassie. Its about Lassie-sized. And it’s lived there since the house was built, at least according to the letter my grandmother left me when she died. It doesn’t hurt or bother anything or anybody, and most of the time it stays out of sight. Occasionally it’ll come out to watch t.v. if I have it on. It likes game shows for some reason. But the best thing is it keeps the house immaculate.”  

I blinked. “Your border collie-sized spider ghost is a maid.”  

She shot me a look. “Not a ghost, a spirit, or part spirit, or whatever. But yes, it cleans. Never when you’re around, and it has to be through magic, but I haven’t had to lift a finger since I moved in.”  

I turned in my seat to face her more directly. “Okay, what’s the deal? Is this a joke about me being messy? I don’t get it.”  

She sighed. “I know how it sounds. But I didn’t want you being terrified when you saw it, and you know I never would have invited you here if I didn’t truly believe its safe. It was weird for me at first too. Now I kind of look at it like having a fucked up family dog that doesn’t die.”  

I opened my mouth to say something else, but I had no words. Finally, deciding I’d just have to let this weirdness play out, I said okay and settled back in my seat.  

When we arrived at the house, I was awestruck by how beautiful the house was. It was also very large, especially by Japanese house standards. We went through an outer gate and into a meticulously maintained garden. I gestured around and mouthed “spider?”, which got me a withering look as Kameko mimicked my gesture and mouthed “gardener”. I grinned and shrugged, and then we went on inside.  

The interior of the home put the outside to shame. It was spotless, but I wouldn’t have expected less from Kameko anyway, and it managed to be extremely clean and orderly without looking sterile or uninviting. I glanced around, simultaneously happy to be there and nervous, and finally I asked where it was.  

Shrugging, she led me deeper into the house. “It’s hard to say. It keeps to itself mainly, and it won’t ever approach you, even though it doesn’t run if you approach it. I guess in theory, it would let you touch it, but I’ve never tried.” She gave out a short laugh. “This sounds so weird actually talking about it to another person.” She suddenly stopped and turned, giving me a quick hug. “I’m really glad you’re here.”  

It wasn’t until that evening, after we had eaten dinner and settled in the living room to watch t.v. that I saw the yokai. I had caught motion out of the corner of my eye, and started to turn when the shape I saw froze me in place. If anything, Kameko had underestimated the thing’s size. It moved silently into the room and slowly moved up a back wall until it was perched against the high ceiling. I heard Kameko's voice near my ear, telling me to breathe, that it was ok. To go ahead and look at it, it was fine, it didn’t mind. With great effort, I turned my head more to see it more fully, taking in its dark form in the flickering of the light from the television. It reminded me somewhat a tarantula, but with large sets of black eyes, 3 smaller surrounding a larger, on both sides of its face. I could feel it glance down at me for a moment, but then it seemed to go back to watching t.v.  

If it had been anyone else, I would have run away then. As it was, I spent the next day trying to convince her it wasn’t safe for her to stay, and she spent another two convincing me everything was fine. Ultimately, she won out. I stayed for another five days, had a great time, and by the end I actually waved by to the spider as it crept across the foyer the day I left to return home. It glanced at me again, gave a slight nod, and went about it’s strange business.  

By the time I arrived home, the entire trip seemed surreal. I was also exhausted. I put down my suitcase, cleared out a spot on my messy bed, and fell asleep. I woke five hours later, and seeing the piles of clothes, the furry dishes in the sink, and the general messiness that I could only partially blame on preparing for the trip, I found myself wishing I had a ghost spider maid of my own. Shaking away the thought, and after a depressing look in the fridge, I went out for pizza.  

When I got back, everything was pristine. I felt a combination of wonder and terror. Had the spider somehow followed me here?
 

That’s when I saw my suitcase. It had been set against a wall and emptied, but I when I got closer I could still see a small bulge in the front pocket at the top. The pocket was partway unzipped, and I used the light on my phone to look inside. There was an egg in there. A strange, leathery black egg the size of a large chicken egg, its surface shiny except for intermittent dull flecks of green. Even at a distance I could see the egg had been opened from the inside and was empty.  

I ran outside and called Kameko. She answered sleepily, but woke up fast when I told her what I had found. She said her yokai was still there, but she guessed it had a baby? She said she would try to find out what she could, but to be very careful, as not all yokai are the same, and some are very dangerous.  

I debated getting a hotel room, but ended up going back in, promising myself I would run at the first sign of trouble. When I entered, I saw it. It was halfway up the wall of the front hall, looking at me with eight small eyes of dark blue, like sapphires. It was the size of a small kitten, and its legs and body were covered in what looked like white fur. It’s head was the strangest part, as aside from its eyes, it looked more like the head of a weasel than a spider. I saw it open its mouth in a toothy yawn before giving me a small warbling greeting.  

It was almost cute. Which probably meant it would kill me and fill my body cavity with eggs. I regretted the thought and swallowed.  

“Are we cool?” I felt like an idiot talking to a little monster on my wall, but it just blurted out. Then it nodded.  

“Going to live here together and get along, not hurt each other?”
 

Another nod.  

“Okay, cool I guess. We’ll try it out. Welcome home.” The creature gave what I decided was a happy warble and nod before moving away down the hall.  

In the days since, everything has gone very well. It’s still bizarre, of course, but I’ve adjusted quickly, and had no real concerns until this morning, when I found the body in the guest room closet.  

I had gone upstairs to get a raincoat out of the closet, but I had trouble opening the door. When I did, I saw a man’s body, wrapped neatly in silk webbing, sitting in the closet floor. I screamed, but before going into full panic mode I realized the man was wearing a black ski mask. I studied him closer to the extent I could see through the webs. He had dark clothes, and a long skinning knife was clenched in his right fist.  

I recognized that knife. Chet used to carry it around in his truck the times we went out. I felt my stomach clench. I managed to slip the knife loose with some effort and used it to free enough webbing to remove the mask. Chet's face was hollowed and drawn, and I could see that his throat had been ripped out.  

It’s hard for me to say how long he had been there, but I had seen enough to know what had happened. I grabbed my raincoat and went out. When I returned home that night, every trace of him was gone. For the tenth time I considered calling the police, but what could I say? In the end I sat down and turned on the television. It only took a minute to find a game show to watch.  

88

Before I became a dispatcher I never really thought about the wide variety of calls that I would get. Truth be told, I thought it was more action packed like what they describe in the movies. The real life of a dispatcher is more so about lost animals, break-ins, car accidents, health concerns, suicide prevention, domestic abuse, noise complaints and to my surprise a fair share of confessions. During my years working as a dispatcher, I have come across many – almost on a monthly basis – people calling in about needing to confess to a crime or something that they’ve felt guilty about for a very long time. However, they aren’t always the same. Confessions are triggered by guilt and remorse, but they are also triggered by fear and even when your last moments are near.

For me, confessions have always left a bitter taste in my mouth. Usually, when someone has a confession to make, it’s not because they’ve done something great. I mean, no one truly ever calls 911 with great news. One thing I’ve always hated about confessions is that you don’t really know what you’re going to hear.

For confidentiality reasons, all names have been made up.


PHIL

This call came in around 9 pm on a Tuesday.

“911, what’s your emergency?”

“Hello?” An elderly man spoke softly into the phone, he sounded scared.

“Sir? What is your emergency?”

“They’ve come to take me away. I don’t want to go.” He whispered over the line and a chill ran up my spine.

“Who has come to take you away?”

“My daughter and grandchild.” He took a deep breath and continued. “They’ve come for me.”

“Are they trying to forcefully remove you from your home? I can send an officer to –” he cut me off with a disgruntled groan.

“No.” He took another deep breath “You might not believe me but I think – I think they’ve come back to haunt me from all those years ago.”

“Pardon me? You think you’re being haunted? What happened?” I sent out the dispatch with details about a disturbed elderly man.

“I killed them, they’ve come back to take what I took from them.” His voice trembled as he spoke. “I tried – I tried to get sober for them but I couldn’t do it. I’ve never told anyone the truth. I’ve – I’ve lost everything.”

“Okay, everything will be fine. I’m going to ask you a few questions, alright?” He made another disgruntled groan which was enough for me to start asking questions “Sir, what is your name? Are you under the influence of any drugs are alcohol?”

“My name is Phil O’Hare, I – I have been drinking, but I can swear to God I’m not that drunk!” He shouted “You got to believe me, they’re here to kill me! It’s my time.” He shouted and went back down to a soft tone. I added to the dispatch that he was drunk and a little unstable.

“Phil, why would they haunt you?” I was genuinely curious as to what he was about to tell me despite the fact that I’ve always regretted knowing the crimes that people have committed.

“Because of what I did to them…” He trailed off into sniffles. “I shouldn’t – I shouldn’t have gotten behind the wheel that night.” He was sobbing at this point.

“So you were drinking and driving.”

“I told my daughter that I would drive her and Amber home that night. She even asked me if I had drank anything and I said that I was good to drive. I told her I was sober.” He paused and continued in a whisper. “They’ve come to take me away because I took their life.” He broke out into sobs on the last word. My heart was in the pit of my stomach.

“Okay,” I took a deep breath “then what happened?”

“I crashed. I crashed right into a telephone pole – we were going so fast, I couldn’t stop.” He was stumbling through his sentence because he was talking so fast. “They were screaming at me to stop but I couldn’t remember how to stop. I – I hit the gas.” He was crying uncontrollably now, “I didn’t – I didn’t mean to do it. I just wanted them to get home safe.” I stayed silent for a second processing the horrible tragedy that was now haunting him.

“You didn’t tell anyone about this?” I asked, I felt bad for the man.

“I called the police and told them I fell asleep at the wheel” he sounded disgusted with himself “I didn’t tell them that I was drunk. They – they felt so bad for me and told me that it wasn’t my fault. But it was – I killed them.” Police were about 2 minutes out, these kinds of calls never really took precedent.

“Phil, the police will be there shortly, okay? You can confess – “ He started to scream.

“Please! I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! I love you so much! Please don’t!” He was screaming and crying.

“Phil, what is happening?” I tried to sound calm, but I was very worried.

“They won’t say anything, they just keep getting closer!” He shouted in terror “Please make them go away, please stop! I’m so – “ He stopped shouting suddenly, I heard him groan in pain and then the phone dropped. I sat there listening to him groan in pain until there was no sound. The next thing I heard was when the police arrive on scene. They entered the home to find Phil dead on the floor.

When one of the officers picked up the phone and told me to disengage, I asked how he had died, she said it looked like it was from cardiac arrest. I dispatched an ambulance for them and disengaged the call.

I remember the morning I came home from this shift, I told my girlfriend about the call, curious as to what she thought. I shared that the only conclusion I could come up with was that I thought it was some sort of hallucination. I had heard that people who suffer from PTSD had some pretty vivid hallucinations from time to time, but I didn’t know for sure. However, she was not all surprised as to what Phil was seeing and what happened to him. She truly believes that people who are on the brink of death can see the paranormal and/or the people who have come to take them to “the other side”. I, for one, don’t know what to think about this. Do you think that being on the brink of death could trigger some sort of sight into the unknown?

291

“Dreams, indeed, are ambition; for the very substance of the ambitions is merely the shadow of a dream… I hold ambition of so airy and light a quality that it is but a shadow’s shadow.”

-Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii, 257-62

We word-worship the Bard for a damn good reason; no one else has been able to say it better since.

Ambition and success are usually sugar-coated and mass-produced for dishonest purposes at the end of Disney movies. True ambition is a rare thing that comes from the part of a man’s spirit that evolution has long protected via the cloak of profound stupidity and soul-crushing apathy.

*

I was one of the rare ones. I was willing.

Corporate success begins with hundred-hour workweeks, but it doesn’t end there. Not by a long shot.

When Lionel Crenkins himself asked me into his office to “talk things over,” I could actually taste my ambition bearing fruit.

“Have a seat, Mr. Walker,” he offered. Crenkins extended a pudgy hand out in front of him, reaching over his amble torso girth. He flashed white teeth as he smiled.

I sat.

The man poured himself a double of 1913 Paddy Centenary. He offered me none. “Sally Hansen spent six months crunching numbers for subtleties in the derivatives market,” Crenkins droned casually. “Andrew Hess brought on three new corporations as subsidiaries, and Lou Brish took Hansen’s information and used it to sell the Hess clients at a substantial profit. Yet all three resigned in the past month, just before the deals were publicized, and you ended up with all the credit.”

My balls froze.

Crenkins began a deep, guttural guffaw that broke down into a series of vortex-like, wheezing gasps.

He was very fat.

He caught his breath and stared at me with beady eyes, then rose to his feet and rested his weight on his fists. “And you made it seem like you were their friends, even after they were gone.” His comb-over flopped down in front of his eyes. He did not move it. “I’m proud of you, Mr. Walker. The truly evolved person makes that extra grab for personal glory.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. He understood. Of course he did.

Then Crenkins turned around and pulled a girl out from his closet.

She was naked, save for the ropes on her wrists and ankles, and a hood over her face. Nice body and perky tits, to be perfectly honest.

She seemed terrified, but it was hard to tell with the hood.

“Seven million dollars to take her while I watch,” Crenkins said, unzipping his pants. The bound woman lurched back, but was unable to run away.

I was overwhelmed with vertigo. Seven million. More than any honest man would ever need. Enough to satiate even the ambitious.

And would I really say no to Crenkins?

“Don’t worry,” he heaved, “I will have her disposed of when you’re finished, if you so desire.”

*

I felt so hollow when it was all over.

I vaguely considered that she must feel so much worse.

A supremely satisfied Lionel Crenkins zipped up his pants, walked over to the girl, and smiled.

I really did feel awful for her.

When he started peeling back her hood, my initial thought was that I didn’t want to see her face.

My world ended when I recognized my daughter lying on the ground. She looked up and saw me for all I ever would be.

“So,” Crenkins asked, pulling a nine-mil from his coat pocket, “do you still want to dispose of the evidence?”

BD

191

I’ve owned quite a few dogs in my life but Haruki was my all-time favorite. She was a boxer and I loved that dog more than life itself. I owned her through a particularly bad period of my life, I went through two divorces and countless financial setbacks and for long periods of time it was just Haruki and me.

She was ten years old and really sick and I knew she wasn’t going to live much longer and that’s when I seriously got to thinking about cloning her. I was so attached to her and the idea of life without Haruki just twisted my stomach in knots. I’d read-up on the procedure and I knew there was this really reliable company in Korea (Which, at that time, was one of the few countries you could legally clone in).

I had my vet take a biopsy sample of Haruki’s skin tissue and I sent it to the lab in Seoul so they could get to work cloning my dog. It was really expensive, almost a 150 grand at that time, give or take, and the lab made over two hundred attempts before they finally succeeded in cloning her.

Haruki died not long afterwards and I buried her in the apple orchard at the bottom of the garden. I cried all night. I lay by her grave and I bawled like a baby. I hadn’t cried since I was ten or so. I felt like I was all busted up inside. I didn’t even feel that bad when my dad died.


It took a few weeks to clear all the documents I needed to bring Haruki’s clone into the country, but eventually she arrived at my doorstep, a two-month old boxer puppy, the spitting image of Haruki when she’d been a pup.

Her arrival made me feel a bit weird. I felt like I was trying to replace Haruki and somehow it didn’t seem right. I felt like maybe I should have just gotten over my loss the way everybody else does. But seeing that little puppy and knowing that she was essentially made up of the same cells as Haruki made me feel a little better.

Everything was ok for the first seven or eight months, but I guess, even in the beginning, there were warning signs, little things that should have told me something wasn’t right.

I gave Haruki’s clone a name. Misaki. It means “beautiful blossom”.

Misaki behaved like Haruki. She had this expression on her face whenever I’d tell her off, and even the way she showed affection was identical to Haruki. There were other things as well. Like the fact Misaki loved all the toys Haruki used to love. She acted like she’d always owned them. Especially this one red ball that Haruki used to roll around with her nose. Misaki rolled the ball around in the exact same way.
It was uncanny.

But there were differences as well.
Misaki would suddenly start howling for no apparent reason. She’d stand in the middle of the living room and howl at this photo of me and Haruki. It got so bad I had to take the photo away. And then there was the fact she was always whinging and whining and jerking in her sleep. Like she suffered from bad dreams or something.

Another problem was taking Misaki for walks. Haruki used to be really friendly with other dogs. In all the time I had her she’d probably only gotten into a fight once. But Misaki was a different kettle of fish altogether. The other dogs in the neighborhood hated her. They’d attack her at the drop of a hat and I was always breaking up fights. I couldn’t figure it out. It wasn’t like Misaki was an aggressive animal. It was more like the other animals sensed something not right about her.
Hell, I sensed something not right about her.

I couldn’t put my finger on it.
She just seemed off somehow.


It was only when Misaki was full grown that the real problems started.

I remember one night, around three in the morning, I woke up from this really weird dream. I’d been out in the backyard, playing Frisbee with Haruki, when suddenly she started vomiting up blood. I ran to her as she keeled over and as I crouched beside her I realized it wasn’t Haruki at all. It was Misaki. And just as I realized that, Misaki lunged at me with a horrible snarl and sank her teeth into my throat.

I woke up with a jerk.
The room was dark but I could sense something watching me from the shadows.

I sat up in bed and instantly I saw Misaki silhouetted in the bedroom doorway, staring in at me.

Her left eye seemed to be glowing green.

I snapped the lights on but the room was empty. Misaki wasn’t there.
That freaked me out. I got out of bed and went downstairs and there she was, curled up in her usual spot in a corner of the kitchen, whimpering and jerking in her sleep.


The dog began to worry me more and more. I couldn’t figure out what it was about her. For long stretches of time she’d be normal and then she’d do things that didn’t make any sense, like suddenly she’d freeze in the middle of whatever she was doing and start shivering. She’d be staring at this one spot on the wall and making this high-pitched whining sound.

Other times she’d be down in the basement, digging at the hard-packed earth. It got so I had to lock the basement door and then she sit in front of the door and howl at it.

I got the idea to attach a go-pro camera to her collar so I could monitor what Misaki got up to while I was out at work.

When I got home I checked the footage.
This is what it showed. After I left that morning Misaki wandered aimlessly around the house for a while, and then she sat and stared at the passage wall, then got up and turned a couple of circles, then she’d sit and stare at the wall again, and then she’d get up and turn circles again– that’s literally all she did, for almost six hours on end, like a machine on an endless loop. It was really fucking weird.

I filmed her a few days in a row and every day she repeated the same ritual.

It was like watching the software breaking down on a computer.

Not long afterwards I started to notice her left eye had this weird green reflection in it – not all the time, but when the light caught her eye just right that green tint would appear – like the color of corruption.


I called up the lab in Seoul and they told me to observe Misaki for about a week or so and then send a report to them. They said they needed to know more about Misaki’s condition before they could determine what was wrong with her.


My neighbor has a cat who’s terrified of Misaki. He’ll race up the nearest tree as soon as Misaki puts in an appearance in the back yard and hiss and spit at her from the branches.

My neighborr is a pretty blonde in her mid-thirties and I’ve never had any problems with her. She has a theory that the cloning process has altered Misaki’s genes somehow. That other animals can sense it.

Then, one day, my neighbor comes to me and tells me her cat’s gone missing. She’s really in a state. Her cat’s never gone missing before.

I don’t think Misaki had anything to do with that but I tell her not to worry, that cats go missing all the time. He’ll turn up soon.

I find the cat’s carcass in the basement, literally torn limb from limb. Misaki is busy eating its entrails when I come upon this grizzly scene. I forgot to lock the basement door and I stand at the top of the stairs and I’m staring down into the basement, thinking: “what the fuck is going on?”

Haruki would never have done this…this isn’t Haruki – this isn’t my dog – that fucking lab in Korea, they made a mistake – this isn’t my dog….

Don’t you think I’d know my own fucking dog?

I call out to her and she glances up at me. Her snout is smeared in blood and I notice both her eyes are reflecting green and she’s making this sound at the back of her throat– I’ve never heard a dog make a sound like that before – like the sound of a woman or child being choked to death.

I come down the stairs and make a grab for her collar and that’s when she attacks me.


She literally goes berserk, sinking her teeth into my leg and I’m yelling and beating and pummeling her, trying to get her off me and all the while she’s making this crazy choking sound. Its only when I grab a shovel and smack her hard with it that she lets go and even then, she’s circling me, snarling, and her eyes are blazing green.

I was fucking spooked.
I lock her in the basement after that.
I won’t let her out. I won’t feed her. I just want her to fucking die because I’m too much of a coward to go in and finish her off myself.

The first few days she whining and scratching at the door and sometimes she barks.

But after the third day the sounds she makes become increasingly less like a dog and more like…something else…like the sound of a woman sobbing, and a whispering sound, like people talking to each other under their breath, and other times I hear a growling sound that raises the hairs on the back of my neck.

By the fifth day something heavy starts hurling itself at the basement door and I hear what sounds like a man shouting to be let out. I can’t be sure. Its all pretty garbled.

By the sixth day things fall eerily quiet.

I listen through the door but I can’t hear a sound.

I wait another two days and then I gently open the door and peek inside.
The stench of corruption is overwhelming but everything is still.
I switch the lights on and creep downstairs.


Misaki is lying dead next to hole she’d been digging in the ground. I wrap her in a blanket and then I take her down to the apple orchard and bury her next to Haruki. I bury the red ball with her.

I sit beside the grave for a long time and then I go back indoors.


I feel messed up.

I can barely sleep these days. I keep hearing scratching sounds in the basement.

Last night I managed to get to sleep around two in the morning, only to wake up about an hour later with the acute feeling I was being watched.

I sat up in bed and stared into the darkness of my room and I swear to God, for a moment, I saw a green glowing eye staring back at me.

1.1k

I don't know what the hell has happened a few days ago; maybe one of you can shed some light on it. 4 days ago, me and my girlfriend Lauren are in our house, about to binge watch Game of Thrones. We both had the day off. After plopping down on the couch with a big ass bowl of chicken nuggets, we spent the next 2 hours or so watching it. Then my phone rang; I stared at it for a few seconds, making sure I was seeing it right. It was Lauren's number on the caller ID; but her phone was sitting on the table. I showed it to her.

"Well, this should be interesting. Answer it"

So I answered it.

"Hey babe. The shop is pretty dead right now. I've got the laptop; you wanna come down here? We can watch a movie."

She works in a computer shop. When she's working and I'm off, that's usually what we do.

"Who is this?"

"What do you mean? It's Lauren."

"Nice try. You're spoofing your caller ID. This is Rachel, isn't it?" Rachel is my sister. But it did sound like Lauren on the phone.

"Why would Rachel have my phone? I just said it's Lauren. What's your problem?"

"Ok, if this is Lauren, what's the password on the laptop?"

"It's (REDACTED). Are you done playing?"

I hung up after that, then turned to Lauren.

"Did you put someone up to this?"

"Of course I didn't. I wouldn't give out my password. I use the same one for everything."

I wasn't sure what to do after that, so we just got back to the show. I didn't give it much thought, until two days later. I was still off, but Lauren had to work. Her boss Mark was there, but he's pretty cool about me hanging out. We got to talking about the phone call from Fake Lauren. When we mentioned when it happened and that she wasn't working then, he looked confused.

"But you were working. Chloe called in sick, and she told me you would cover her shift."

"No, I was at home. Chloe never called me."

"Let's see what happened, then."

Mark pulled up the video from the security cameras, and we officially entered "What the fuck?" territory. There, in the video timestamped showing the same time as the phone call, was Lauren at the counter. There's no denying it was her; same outfit she was wearing that day, same streak of purple in her hair, same tattoos on her arms. But it gets weirder. Not only was the laptop sitting on the counter, the same laptop we were watching Game of Thrones on at the time, but the Lauren in the video was on her phone, and she was saying exactly what the woman on the phone said to me.

Here comes the weirdest part. Mark fast-forwards the video to when Lauren gets off. We watch her send a text, and a few minutes later, guess who shows up to get her? I do. Somehow, I'm picking Lauren up from work, while at the same time Lauren and I are at home. A different camera shows them get in my car, which was in the garage at the time, and drive away.

They never showed up at our house. Where did they go? Who were they? What the actual fuck happened?

63

This happened a few years ago, when Robb, Joe, and me were just starting out in college together. We’re all from the Chattanooga area in Tennessee, which is only a few hours’ drive to the Bell Witch Cave.

If you’re not familiar, the Bell Witch is “the only documented case of a ghost killing someone.” Truth be told, it’s a popular legend in the South, and by “ghost killing someone,” they mean that a ghost apparently bothered someone to death. If someone ever died after their siblings teased them, I guess that would count.

Still, it’s a real place. You can visit the cave in Adams, TN. We did. We came to regret the trip, and not just because of how shit the cave itself turned out to be.

It was at least a five hour drive up the middle of Tennessee. You would think that it wouldn’t take very long given that Tennessee is narrow from top to bottom, but it’s all surface roads. No real highways or interstates go near Adams.

“This is it,” I said as we passed the “Welcome to Adams” sign, adorned with a cheesy addition.

HOME OF THE BELL WITCH

Below the pair of signs was a hand-painted rune of some kind. It didn’t make sense to us. It was a sort of stick figure holding something in one hand, like a stick or wand or something. It was in a messy black paint, slapped on there, let to drip all over so it seemed as if the character was melting.

“Robb, that some kind of Klan sign?” I said.

“Fuck you, Jeff,” replied Robb with casual ease.

“I just wanted to know in case the locals discover I have a black great grandmother,” I said.

“Aren’t you from the South?” asked Joe.

“Nah, he’s a carpetbagger,” said Robb. “Came here to take advantage during Reconstruction.”

“Shouldn’t-a lost the war,” I replied.

“Fuck you,” Robb repeated.

“I love you,” I said in a sing-song.

As we drove down the main road of Adams, we took in the sights. The single stop light. The cracked, pale grey road sealed with criss-crosses of poured tar ran below the car. We passed at least half a dozen signs for local churches, all with messy graffiti and plenty of bullet holes. One church was off the main road we were driving down, boarded and burned up.

“Here’s the next turn.”

A sign indicated “TURN HERE TO BELL WITCH CAVE.”

The road went from the ubiquitous light grey to a crumbling road.

“No more cell signal,” said Joe. “Try not to have any emergencies until we get back to the main road.”

“Hand me some of those pretzels,” I said.

“Don’t choke,” said Robb. I made fake gagging sounds and he punched my shoulder.

The road turned to gravel, and then a dirt track as we pulled into a clearing. There was a small house in the distance and a small trailer near the track with signage for the Bell Witch Cave and admission. We were apparently the only customers to arrive in the mid-afternoon, around three.

“Sumptuous accommodations,” said Joe.

“Unforgettable views,” I opined.

“I didn’t realize roadside tourist traps existed in Tennessee.”

“Especially when the road isn’t near anything,” I said.

We got out of the car and walked up to the admission trailer. A bored-looking redneck eyed us. He looked to be in his forties or so, portly, ripped up John Deere baseball cap with a hook on the bill, threadbare tank-top. We were probably lucky we coudn’t see his pants. No doubt he had enough crack exposed to send in a survey team.

“Yeah?” he drawled.

“Um. How much to go see the cave?” I asked.

“Twenty,” he said. His lower lip bulged with dip, and he spit into an old Coke bottle, about half full of dark fluid.

“For the car? That’s not too bad,” I reached into my pocket.

“Per person,” he said. He grinned. His teeth were splattered with bits of tobacco. I looked back at my friends.

“Twenty fuckin’ bucks?” I said.

“This was your idea,” said Robb.

“Yeah, and we already drove up here,” said Joe.

I shrugged and turned back.

“All right. Here,” I held out my credit card.

“Y’ain’t got cash?”

“No, sorry. We spent it on gas.”

He rolled his eyes, then picked up a phone.

“Yeah. Bring up the credit card reader.” He hung the phone up. “Be a minute.”

I put the credit card back in my wallet and looked around the property.

“Slow day?” I asked.

“Everyone’s at church,” said the worker. He spit into the Coke bottle.

“Most of the church signs were messed up,” said Robb.

“There was one burned down, too,” said Joe.

The guy shrugged.

“Wrong churches.”

We stood in an awkward silence for a minute, the redneck sucking and spitting, the cicadas singing, the sun wandering towards the horizon. The sound of footsteps announced the arrival of a short woman in a Mickey Mouse shirt and black sweatpants with a card-reader under one hand.

“For three people?” she complained at the guy.

Me and the guys exchanged looks.

“Yeah. Give it here,” he said. He plugged the machine in and inserted a phone line.

I handed him my credit card again and he punched the pad.

“You want a receipt, too?” he asked.

“No, thanks. I don’t want to put y’all out,” I said.

The redneck squinted at me, but grunted in response.

Joe and Robb paid as well, and we were milling around waiting to be told where to go.

“Follow them signs down,” said the redneck, pointing. “Tours go every fifteen minutes.” We walked down a dirt path, hard-packed by feet. Signs pointed towards a sloping area behind a stand of trees, where the path turned to rocks. We followed this part for a moment, and then a wooden walkway lead to the mouth of a cave.

“For a minute there I thought I’d have to force that guy to take the money,” I said.

“Yeah, what the hell was that about?” said Robb.

“The Bell Cave in Adams, Tennessee caters to only the most exclusive cash-only crowd,” said Joe.

We sized up the cave entrance, which was about ten feet tall and at least as wide. The wind blew gently behind us as the trees rustled overhead. The sound of the cicadas and tree frogs singing faded, went silent. The only sound we could hear was wind in the open cavern. The wind blew, and a reverberation made it sound like the cave was moaning.

“That’s creepy,” said Joe.

“Yeah,” said Robb. “We paid twenty dollars for a glorified kazoo.”

“I thought,” I began, “that you were about to say ‘glory hole,’ and I was going to say that would at least be worth twenty bucks.”

“Oh, we got fucked all right,” said Robb.

“No joke,” I replied.

“Shut up, here comes someone,” said Joe.

A guide came out of the cave and approached us. She was younger than the other two people, probably late teens or early twenties. She was dressed in a white Fudruckers shirt and jeans. She looked bored.

“Hey y’all, I’m Tammy. Wanna see the cave?”

“Sure,” we said. Tammy turned on a flash light and turned to lead us into the mouth of the cave. The wind kicked up and moaned again, making the air vibrate and causing a sense of unease settle on our hearts.

“So, like, in colonial times there was a man named John Bell who moved out this way. There were some problems around the house. You know, knocking and all that. Knocking on the windows. Knocking on the roof. Cows gave sour milk. Chickens laid rotten eggs.”

She sighed and ducked under the low ceiling of an outcrop in the cave. We ducked under it with her and the light danced over a small antechamber. Water lapped at the dirt floor, and there was just enough room for the four of us.

“So, shitty farmers, then,” said Joe.

“Shhh,” I said.

“Crops failed,” she droned on. She went through the obviously canned story while we looked around the dank, dripping cave. When she wound down, she said:

“It’s said the ghost of the Bell Witch still haunts the area, and especially this cave where she used to live. Any questions?”

“Have you seen or heard the Bell Witch since working here?” I asked.

“No. Not really,” she replied. We all looked at each other.

“So, you haven’t seen anything or heard anything?”

“Nah,” she said.

“Gripping ghost story,” said Robb. “Are you going to turn off the flashlight and let us sit in the dark?”

“Sure,” she said, and snapped the light off.

We were quiet for a few moments.

“Jeff,” said Joe.

“What?”

“Why are you holding my hand?”

“I’m not, stop being an idiot,” I said.

“Someone is. It’s not furry enough to be Robb’s.”

“Har har, Joe,” said Robb.

“I’m serious.”

“Tammy, are you messing with him?”

There was no response from our guide.

“Tammy?”

“Jeff, let go of my hand,” said Joe.

“I’m not holding your fucking hand, Joe,” I said.

“WELL SOMEONE FUCKING IS!” he yelled.

There was a rumble deep in the cave.

“Tammy? Turn the light back on so we can go. Fuck this bullshit,” said Robb.

Again, there was no response from our teenage guide.

I stuck my hands out in the dark and stumbled into Joe, who started throwing punches and flailing his arms.

“Fuck dude! You poked me in the eye!”

“Quit holding my hand like a psycho.”

“I don’t have your hand dummy. Let’s go,” I said. “Robb. Follow my voice. Grab my shoulders. There we go. Let’s go guys,” I said. I turned slowly in the dark and put my hands on the low ceiling of the cave. I could feel the slope of the rock and followed it to the outcrop we’d had to duck under.

“Watch the-”

“FUCK!” yelled Robb.

“-ceiling.” We crawled under and could see the pale light trickling in from the open cave front.

We ran out like our lives depended on it, and collapsed on the wooden walkway out front.

“Fuckin’ rednecks,” said Robb.

“Who the fuck just leaves people in a cave?” said Joe.

“Fuckin’ rednecks,” I said.

“Think we could get our money back?” said Joe.

“Nah, they’d have to hit buttons,” said Robb. “If the button doesn’t drop a pack of Camels, they won’t know how to work it.”

“Let’s get going. Sorry about this guys, I really thought there’d be more to it,” I said.

“At least we can say we’ve been. I guess,” said Robb.

“I can’t wait to huff your farts for another five hours in the car,” said Joe. “Which of you was holding my hand, you fuckers?”

“I wasn’t,” I said.

“I’m not into you,” said Robb. “You’re too scrawny.”

“One of you was, dammit.”

“Ghosts, man. At least one of us got our money’s worth,” I said.

We climbed the wooden walkway and entered the field. The sun was now just behind the horizon, and twilight crept across the sky. Darkness was falling.

“Let’s stay somewhere tonight and grab some beer,” I said. “We’ll play cards or something.”

The other guys agreed.

As we walked to my car, we saw that the admission booth was closed up, and dark. Even the lights at the house were out.

“They turn in early,” said Joe.

“That way customers don’t try to pay them,” said Robb.

“More convenient this way,” I said.

The animal sounds I associate with a night in the South - cicadas, tree frogs, whippoorwills, were all silent. There wasn’t even a whining of mosquitos. We got into the car, doors slamming, and I turned the key in the ignition. The car rumbled to life, and I turned around in the dark.

“Something ain’t right out here,” said Robb.

“Yeah, phantom hand-holders are a real problem,” I said.

“No, it was too quiet,” said Robb. “Nothing singing.”

“And?” said Joe.

“Ain’t no night in the country quiet like that,” said Robb.

“Well, we’re on the road,” I said.

“Wish you’d let me bring my gun,” said Robb. “I feel naked.”

“As long as you feel naked and aren’t naked, we’ll all feel safer,” said Joe.

We pulled onto the dirt road headed back to town, and it slowly transitioned to a gravel road. My headlights flashed on something light colored around the next bend.

“What’s that?” said Joe.

I pulled around the bend, taking my time because deer are at least as numerous as anything else in the South, perhaps moreso, and especially at this time of the evening.

My lights played over a lot of white shapes, standing shoulder to shoulder, arms interlinked. A group of people in white robes were blocking the road, forming a human chain. I looked from right to left and saw they actually blocked the sides too, right up to the treeline, where I wouldn’t be able to drive.

“What the fuck is this?” I said.

“No,” said Robb, real quiet, his voice brimming with horror. “No, no, no no no….” he just said that over and over. Joe didn’t say anything, not yet. I slowed the car to a stop, about twenty yards from the human chain. The people didn’t say anything, didn’t move, just stood there, arm in arm. My lights illuminated those in front, making their robes bright, and somehow, menacing.

Then, they started to walk forward, maintaining their human chain. They took a step, and waited. They stepped together, then waited. They followed an unheard beat, moving in unison.

“What do I do, guys? What do I do?”

“Run them down,” said Robb. “Run them down. They want us for their own don’t let them take us Jeff, don’t let them take us.”

“We can’t just run people over,” said Joe.

“You’d be glad to run down a hundred of them after they got you,” said Robb. He lurched forward from the back seat and yelled into my ear. “DRIVE, DAMMIT! They’ll take us!”

“Robb, I-” I started to respond but he started to try and crawl from the back to the front, trying to somehow steer the car and get me to depress the gas. The chain continued its slow movement forward, but at another unseen signal, they let go of each other’s hands and reached into their robes.

Each of the people in front of us raised something in the air. A long, sharp-looking spike. Some were still shiny and polished, others, stained dark red and brown.

“They’ll stake us to the ground for their wood gods to come and consume us,” said Robb, all the more horrifying that he was halfway splayed into my lap. He looked up at me, and he was crying. Real, genuine tears. He whimpered.

“Stake you to the ground and let the wild eat us alive. Drive, Jeff, drive….”

I looked at Joe and his mouth was open, a dull look on his face.

Outside, the line was almost on top of us. I looked at Robb, and out at the crowd. A man lurched into view. His stake was covered in thick, dried blood, and his expression was one of zealous worship. I suddenly felt like Abraham’s son, waiting for my father to drive his knife into my heart as I baked on a rock in the sun.

I put my foot down. I felt the car lurch forward and I closed my eyes. The car thumped, the engine roared, the belts squealed. For a second, for just a sick second, the car stopped and the tires spun. My window was smashed in and someone clubbed me across the face with their metal stake, and pain bloomed in a flash of blinding light, but I kept my hands on the wheel, my foot on the gas.

I ran over a large speed bump, then another. Who puts speed bumps in the middle of nowhere? I heard screaming from someone inside the car, but whether it was me or the others, I didn’t know.

The car broke free of the line of people and I wrenched the wheel to keep us on the track, gravel flying. The tires screamed as we slid onto the main highway and turned back to civilization. It was full dark now. The wind from my broken window buffeted me, but somehow felt refreshing. I looked and saw that Robb had been thrown into the back. He was covered in broken glass and cuts. Joe was sitting slumped in the seat.

“What. The. Actual. Fuck,” he said.

We drove in silence the rest of the night. We only stopped for gas, and that was when we’d gotten to I24, coasting on fumes. Joe went into the gas station to see if they had a simple first aid kit for sale, to patch up our cuts and bruises. My car looked like shit. Two huge dents in the front bumper and indented the hood. Red, Southern clay, mud, and...something else was flung up on the sides of the doors. My windshield was a spider web, and my driver’s side windows had been smashed.

I noted the nearby 24 hour carwash and figured we’d have to endure a soaking. I wasn’t driving anywhere else with a car covered in dents and with blood flung up on the doors.

I stuck my head in the back when I finished pumping the gas.

“You okay, Robb?” I said. He was laying in the back, his legs folded up on the seat, which had pulled them up past his ankles. I saw, for the first time, a ragged, round scar in his right leg, just above the ankle.

“Stay out of the woods,” he said. He looked at me, and the light in his eyes was feverish, bright, wild.

“Stay out of the woods.”

31

When I saw the tiny, black and white kitten with one blue eye and one green, I told myself I didn’t need a cat. My life was too busy, too chaotic for a pet. But the way she shivered and stared at me broke my heart, and somehow I found myself asking for her cage to be opened.

“We just got her yesterday,” the lady told me. “She’s feral. No one’s been able to lay hands on her.”

“Let me at least try,” I countered, watching the kitten.

Five minutes later, said kitten was perched on my shoulder purring in my ear.

“What are you, the cat whisperer?” the lady asked, incredulous.

I just shrugged, paid her adoption fee, and picked up the items I’d need for her. Litter box, litter, good quality food, a few toys … Back at my townhouse, I set up her litter box in my laundry room. Her food and water went in the kitchen, and her toys were set on the floor in the living room. She wandered around like she owned the place, those odd eyes looking up at me now and then with an expression I couldn’t discern. “You’re going to be a long, lanky cat,” I remarked. “But you need a name. Cleo doesn’t suit you whatsoever.”

The kitten attached herself to me. Wherever I went, she had to go, too. If I sat down, she was on my lap. If I reclined to read, she was on my chest grooming my face. I’d never been around a cat that liked to lick people – that sandpaper tongue was rough. She was so feisty, so sure of herself, though, I finally decided on Valkyrie. The name seemed to suit her, and I wasn’t sure why. Usually I went for names like Shadow, Brownie, Oreo, Sage … but she was a Valkyrie.

When I took her for her shots, I found out how feisty she could be. She growled, hissed, spit, and swiped at the vet techs until they asked me to try holding her. I admit that I laughed inwardly – she didn’t weigh over five pounds. But she calmed with me holding her, and the vet was able to giver her shots and send us on our way.

The townhouse next to me had been empty for a few months – the previous owners had bought a house and put it up for sale. That weekend saw a moving truck parked next door, and two guys moving in. They were a lot younger than me, so I didn’t pay them much attention. They looked like college kids, and I groaned at the thought of the parties that would be thrown and the sleep I’d likely be losing.

Valkyrie did not like them.

I knew she could be funny with people she didn’t know, but this was a level beyond that. If she saw them out the window, she’d run to the window and growl at them like she thought she was a panther. I caught them laughing at her and waving a few times, like they thought she was cute doing that, but something was off about their behavior. It was almost mocking, and I wondered if they’d been teasing her when I wasn’t around. Her behavior was too extreme.

“Well, hey neighbor,” they greeted in unison, when I walked outside to ask them about it.

“I’m Toby,” the strawberry-blond introduced.

“And I’m Darren,” the brunette added.

“Charmed,” I murmured, unwilling to give them my name. “I’m Janelle. Have you two been teasing my cat?”

Darren laughed. “Teasing your pussy?” he echoed, and there was something not nice in his tone.

“Now, why would we want to do a thing like that?” Toby asked, a sly smile appearing.

“She can’t stand the sight of either of you,” I stated. “Cats don’t act like she does, unless someone’s done something to them.”

“Aww,” Toby said, leaning on Darren. “She thinks we’re being mean to her little pussy.”

I spared them one last look, and turned around to go back inside. Talking to them was a wasted effort – they didn’t care. I’d have to keep a better eye on them, to see what they were doing when they thought I wasn’t looking. “Maybe I should close the blinds when I’m gone, at least downstairs.”

But closing the blinds didn’t deter Valkyrie. She seemed to know when they were right outside, and she would slink over to the window to force her head through the blinds to growl at them like she wanted to kill them. I’d never seen a cat act like she did – there had to be a reason for this.

Within the span of a month, Valkyrie doubled in size. Well, she was a growing girl, and the kibble I’d gotten her was top-quality, so I shrugged it off. Her checkup with the vet, however, set me straight.

“Has she really doubled in size, or am I seeing things?” the tech asked me, stunned.

I nodded. “I feed her good.”

The tech gave me a look like I’d grown another head. “Even good food doesn’t account for this kind of growth spurt.”

Valkyrie weighed in at thirteen pounds, three ounces … up a full nine pounds from her last visit. No, I really couldn’t say it was the food, with that staring me in the face. I knew she wasn’t part Maine Coon, or even Norwegian Forest cat, though. She was short-haired. She was clearly going to be a huge cat when she was fully grown.

“Healthy girl you’ve got,” the vet confirmed. “I admit, I’ve never seen a growth spurt quite like this, but she checks out fine.”

“Tell me something,” I began then, remembering how she was with my two creepy neighbors, “would a cat run to a window and growl like she wanted to eat something alive for no reason?”

The vet looked at me for a minute in silence. “Animals are smart,” she finally said. “They know who’s good, and who’s not. I’d keep a watchful eye on anyone she’s acting like that with, if you know they haven’t done anything physically to her.”

“I will,” I murmured.

For the next few weeks, I kept an eye on my neighbors. They both worked, where I had no idea and didn’t really care. Watching them discreetly made me wonder if maybe they were lovers, but the way they’d looked at me that day … no. I’d had gay friends in the past, and they had never acted like that.

“Your neighbors are a couple of neckbeards,” Evelyn told me, when she came to visit.

“Why do you say that?” I asked, curious. I smiled as Valkyrie took up residence on Evelyn’s lap – she loved Ev as much as she did me.

Evelyn absently stroked Valkyrie, brow furrowed as she searched for the right words. “Just the way they looked at me, the creepy expressions on their faces,” she explained. “Maybe I’m wrong about them, but I really don’t think I am. Be careful, Raven. Something about them is wrong.”

“Valkyrie hates them,” I told her. “She has radar when it comes to those two – if they’re outside, she’ll run to the window and start growling like she thinks she’s a mountain lion or something.”

“There’s your sign,” she stated, scratching behind Valkyrie’s ears. “If she doesn’t like them, yeah. Be careful.”

After Evelyn left, I settled on the love seat near the window to do some reading before bed.

“That girlfriend of hers is hot, dude,” Darren said.

“Nothing like some hot lesbian sex,” Toby commented, and my skin crawled. “Maybe we can make them let us watch.”

Darren laughed at that, and his next words made my blood run cold. “Don’t worry, dude, I’ve got a plan.”

I immediately called Evelyn, to tell her what I’d just heard. “Promise me you won’t come over until I get this situation dealt with,” I told her.

“I will, but only if you promise me you’ll stay safe,” she countered. “I don’t like this, not at all. You may want to look into an alarm system.”

“And let them know I heard what they said?” I asked. “No, Ev. I’ve got to handle this discreetly.”

Sunday night, I noticed that Valkyrie seemed restless. She wouldn’t sit still, and kept getting up to go from the front door to the back door. I followed her, making sure the doors were locked tight, but it didn’t stop her from her restless behavior.

“I’m going to get a shower, girl,” I told her, getting up from the love seat to head upstairs. “Keep an eye on those two for me.”

I was just about to cut the water off, to get out and dry off, when I heard a crash followed by screaming and this guttural growl from downstairs. Heart in my throat, I threw on my robe and tied it to leave the bathroom for my bedroom where I’d left my cell. I had just stepped out when Valkyrie appeared at the bottom of the stairs … only she wasn’t the Valkyrie I knew.

Long hair, half black and half white, framed an angular, feline face. She seemed to be covered in fine hair like peach fuzz, in mostly white with black splotches. A long, black tail lashed behind her as she bared long, sharp teeth at something I couldn’t see. One arm drew up and back, and daggers sprouted from the fingertips. Sensing me staring, she turned to look up at me.

“Stay there,” she ordered, those mismatched eyes burning with flames. “I will deal with these bastards.”

I just nodded dumbly, and she darted back out of my sight. There was more screaming, and this time I recognized it as being my asshole neighbors. How the hell had they gotten into my house? I knew the doors were locked tight.

When all the noise stopped, Valkyrie reappeared at the foot of the stairs. “Now you can come down, and call the police to report a break-in,” she told me. “As for their condition, well … they wound up on the wrong side of your cat.”

I came down the stairs, cell in hand, wondering what I was going to see.

Both men were lying on the kitchen floor, covered in bites and ragged gashes. They weren’t dead, but they sure weren’t in good shape either. I was near certain Toby was going to lose his right eye. Turning to Valkyrie, I furrowed my brow. “What … are you?”

She smiled at me. “Friend, ally, guardian … you pick,” she replied, and neatly shifted back into feline form to go curl up on the love seat and clean the blood off her paws.

32

Targeted advertising is getting so out of control as of late. With technology growing at leaps and bounds, you could talk about something as specific as “pointy elf shoes,” your phone will hear you, and Facebook will send up an Amazon advert for genuine elf shoes from Norway while you're scrolling the next day.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes the ads feel so targeted to me personally, I find it rather creepy. You think of something, and you’re considering shopping around for it, and then conveniently there it is on your phone. How do they do that? While I know they say they don’t share any identifiable personal information, how can you trust them? When Zuckerberg has to give statements to congress? Are they concealing more deceptive practices? What else aren’t they telling us? What are they covering up about these algorithms?

Reddit has gotten just as bad lately. An ad came up at the top of this subreddit, and before I knew what I was doing, I had already clicked the little blue megaphone. I normally wouldn’t do something like that. Who does? What kind of unhinged monster, clicks on the “promoted post” ads at the top of the subs? I can understand doing it by mistake, but ON PURPOSE? And this ad especially...

I clicked on it. I read through it. It was so compelling I was afraid I might lose track of it--I imagine that’s probably a thing that happens pretty common--so did a "select all" and copied it so I could remember to look into it later.

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In fact, this message and any comments below cannot be read by those individuals who do not meet our exclusive criteria for candidacy! Those people qualify as unqualified candidates and are thus excluded, so you're in luck! Not only are you already approved for employment at some capacity in one of our various departments, you may feel free to share negative vitriol regarding your current employer below with the other readers and do so with complete impunity.3

CumulaCeutic LLC is currently seeking qualified individuals such as yourself to take part in a variety of internships with alternative pay structures.4 We are a legitimate medical testing facility. I will repeat that. WE ARE A LEGITIMATE MEDICAL TESTING FACILITY.5

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Despite what you may have heard:

It has come to our attention that our competitors and the opposition are claiming that our work is unlawful and immoral, yet we assure you, ONCE AGAIN, that this is a legitimate opportunity. Listen, we know you hate your job and we are offering you gainful employment, so stop thinking so many contrarian questions and opinions about this legitimate job posting because we can hear all of your thoughts. We don't necessarily think that these questions you have are stupid, but they're certainly coming from a very misinformed place. CC LLC has an A+ Employer Rating from the Better Business Bureau.6

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CumulaCeutic LLC is currently conducting various research and development in a variety of actual scientific fields. Including but not limited to:

  • Psychic Advertising
  • Psychic Control
  • Brain Matter Research (Namely: Transplantation, Duplication, Transposition and Digital Replication)
  • Corpse Reanimation
  • Zombification
  • Immortality
  • Unholy Possession
  • Three Headed Dog Beasts
  • Demonic Blood Ritual
  • Pharmaceutical Ouija
  • Arsenic Toothpaste Development

We are looking for victims candidates who can expect to live long and fulfilling lives graced with an everlastingly untapped fount of potential for growth7 as new positions open on a near daily and consistent basis.

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We heard that and no, not because somebody died.8

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All test subjects employees of CumulaCeutic LLC, regardless of pay tier, shall also recieve health insurance and life benefits9 as well as a 50% discount in the corporate cafeteria and on-campus gift shop.10

Qualified individuals must be willing to comply with all criteria, as well as and not limited to future criteria not yet stated, developed, or conceived. Failure to do so will result in immediate disqualification of qualified individuals on the grounds of noncompliance with company regulations.

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ENTRY LEVEL POSITION REQUIREMENTS

  • Minimum Bachelor Degree and 2 years experience in related field.
  • Fear of spiders (required)
  • Prior experience with hallucinogens is preferable but not required as we are capable of providing you with such experience on campus.
  • Experience with full body dismemberment
  • Experience with skeletal sterilization and articulation
  • Mystical knowledge passed down from ancestry (not required but preferred)
  • Born with genitalia in an anatomically incorrect position (not required but preferred for sake of interesting conversation)
  • Minimum of 18 months during adolescence spent wearing corrective dental apparatuses, such as braces or headgear (not required but preferred)
  • Hatred for all humanity (required)
  • Capacity to remain calm in close proximity to large quantities of both freshly harvested blood and rancid blood (required)

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If you're interested in submitting an application, the process is easy!11 A simple pentagram drawn in the blood of an infant followed by the Ritual Invocation of Merihem will get you in touch with one of our representatives. The application is entirely confidential12 and you most assuredly will not die instantaneously.13

So what are you waiting for? The time for devoting your life to Satan, our dark underlord and master a new career and a new start, starts today!

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1. This statement has not been evaluated for validity by a qualified independent third-party. Individual experiences related to involvment in any of our programs may vary and a percentage of some individuals reported experiences in direct opposition to this statement. You should assure yourself that this is probably rare and that the percentage of negative experiences might be rather low. This is most certainly not the case, but by continuing to read this ad, you submit legally binding conformation that you agree to hold harmless CumulaCeutic LLC and all related entities. Also you agree that you believe otherwise, and stuff.

2. This person is not actually a doctor and his name is likely a pseudonym being used to conceal a dark past.

3. This technology **DOES, IN FACT, ACTUALLY EXIST** but you probably should refrain from following that instruction because the likelihood that your boss is also among those in the target audience selected by our psychic software is actually quite high.

4. Pay structures range from unpaid internships to as high as a daily rationed handful of mysterious nondescript pills, they will be consumed in their entirety upon daily distribution, signed off by a supervisor and an additional witness.

5. Lies.

6. More Lies.

7. Father of Lies. is our CEO.

8. Most have technically since been reanimated.

9. You won't.

10. Restricted to Research Campuses in the assention levels of various alternate realities and dimensions and null and void at any location on this plane of existence.

11. The process is actually, very, very difficult and dangerous you will very likely die.

12. The powers of evil supersede the confidentiality clause in certain instances. We will be informing the Lord God and his Son Jesus Christ, along with your mother, of your intent to join the rank and file of Legion. This will likely break your mother's heart and cause her to uncontrollably weep for eternity. We do hope that these tears are not of blood, but this has happened in certain instances.

13. By submitting application, you submit that should any Rites of the Invocation of Merihem be performed incorrectly, you agree that you will in fact die and release CumulaCeutic LLC, its parent company Demonic Entity Affiliates, INC and all related subsidiaries of any and all liability for you death in perpetuity. This includes instances where the summoner has performed the ritual while not in either the proper traditional nudity or traditional red summoning cloak and also instances wherin Merihem arbitrarily decides to evicerate the skin from your face and consume your soul through your mouth. Instances of this mostly occur when the individuals performing the ritual are wearing a summoning cloak of the color blue--which he hates--just as a heads up.

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Has anyone else ever seen anything like this? Did this ad target you as well? I thought it was oddly timely because I was just thinking about how much I really did need to start seeing what else was out there. I mean, it does say that if I’m seeing it, I’ve already passed some kind of pre-screen and will be placed to do something at their facility...what have I got to lose?

Now...where to find an infant?

87

Part 1

Part 2

I started jogging after him, splashing through an already worrying volume of water starting to flow out of the tunnel. By the time I’d caught up to him we were standing in the space where the tunnels converged. There was a significant amount of water flowing from both tunnels and rushing down past us as we stepped up onto the raised platform where the door was. It was still there and it was ajar, just like last time.

I was right behind George as he put a hand on the door handle and pulled it open further.

Just then a single moth landed on my chest and I brushed it off frantically, terrified, before stepping on it. When I looked up George had disappeared through the doorway.

I entered next and I was instantly met by the overwhelming stench of rotting flesh. I gagged and pulled my shirt up over my nose, shocked. I could see the figure of George illuminated in what little light was coming from outside the door, gun pointed down at a body laying on the ground. Now that I was in the room I could hear the breathing, the same as last time. The dogs were there too, at least a dozen of them. They were in the corner, trembling and whimpering, eyes set on the body too.

But George wasn’t moving or saying anything. I recognised the dead look in his eyes and my blood ran cold. At that moment I dropped to my knees - paralysed just as I was all those years ago - then lurched forward, unable to hold myself up. I looked on in absolute horror as the bloated mass of flesh started to rise before me, until it rose above my line of vision. Then there was a period which may have lasted a minute or it may have lasted ten. All I could physically do was look straight ahead, knowing that it was going to come into contact with me at any moment, just as George told me it had done to him. I too prayed for unconsciousness but that didn’t come. Not yet.

I felt it first. The cold, soft, wet thing slowly engulfing me. The stench was so horrendous now that I thought I might pass out just from that. But then, just as George had described, I started seeing my memories flashing before me, each only for a fraction of a second.

But then the memory of the day my sister Evie was born. I was six-years-old and it was one of the happiest days of my life. It lingered on that one.

More memories flying by, and then another one it lingered on; I was eleven-years-old. The final football game of the season has just ended - we’d won the grand final. Pure elation.

It went on like this, lingering on many different memories, significant and not particularly significant, but all happy; Pieces of a family holiday; A good test result from school; Different times spent with George and other friends swimming and mucking around during the summers; The time I caught a particularly large fish down in the lake and how proud my Dad was; My first kiss with Debbie Matthews at a party in year 10; Starting university and all the excitement that brought.

Many more pass by, then I’m seeing my future wife, Lisa, for the first time as she sits next to me in the lecture hall. I’m speaking to her, making her laugh and getting her number somehow despite how out of my league she clearly is. When we part ways I can’t get the smile off my face. It lingers on this one longer than any of the others.

Again, memories flash by, then it’s Lisa and I getting married. Our families and all of our closest friends are there with us. The happiest day of my life at the time. It lingers on this one even longer.

More memories, then I’m with Lisa in our little bathroom seeing the pregnancy test come up positive. We’re both crying, ecstatic.

Then finally our beautiful baby girl, Josie, is born, and it overtakes the day we got married as the happiest day of my life. It lingers on this one the longest…so, so long…and I feel darkness overtaking me.

Then I’m being dragged out of the creek, I’m coughing up water, I can’t get a breath, I’m freezing cold. I can’t comprehend what’s happening. Someone’s shouting my name but the words sound like they’re coming from miles away. My eyes can’t focus on George above me, but I realise it’s him.

“Liam, fucking breathe!” He screams in my face, pounding my chest with his fists. And I do…I take a breath and then another. Finally I can focus on him. He looks absolutely terrified.

Everything from the tunnel floods back and my heart sinks. I frantically try and remember something, anything meaningful. It’s all hollow, just like George described. My wedding day isn’t mine anymore - I see it like it’s happening to somebody else. The memory of Lisa giving birth to Josie doesn’t make me feel anything. It’s like I’m watching a documentary on total strangers. I’m trying to remember Josie’s smile and I can’t quite make it out.

I’m in tears now, screaming, flailing in the mud at the edge of the creek. My eyes are shut tight trying to remember all the memories that have been stolen from me, but it’s useless.

That was two weeks ago…or maybe more.

I spent two days in hospital ‘for observation’ before I checked myself out. The welts were not particularly deep and the doctor who assessed me was not concerned about infection. I told all of the nurses and specialists that came to see me that I had no recollection of what happened, and that I must have hit my head. I got some strange looks from them, but in the end they had no power to keep me hospitalised. I had managed to convince my parents not to tell Lisa about the incident - I didn’t want her to worry.

Since I’ve been back home things have been…hard. Josie will not allow me to hold her. She screams whenever I come near. Lisa says it’s the welts, but I’m not so sure. Lisa has been distant too - she knows something happened while I was away, but I can’t bring myself to tell her. I woke up the other night in blind terror - I had a nightmare about the tunnel and when I opened my eyes I was being smothered by the stinking, bloated thing. I screamed and gagged and did everything I could to fight it off, but of course it wasn’t there. The smell was though. I can smell it now. I can't wash it out even though I've scrubbed myself raw trying. Anyway, Lisa was in tears when I finally regained my composure and she took Josie and a suitcase to her Mum’s house. They haven’t been back since.

To be honest I’ve not been feeling great at all. I haven’t been in to work for a week and I haven’t been answering my phone. Work tried to call a few times. My boss knocked on the door at one point and I told him to fuck off. Probably not a great career move in hindsight.

The thing is, I want my memories back. I have no good memories left whatsoever, and with Lisa and Josie gone, I can’t even create new ones. I guess that’s why I’ve been drinking quite a bit during the last week or so as well. I feel like I’m so close to seeing some of my memories when I’m a few drinks in. So close.

There’s another reason I’ve been drinking so much.

George sent me another Facebook message. It turns out that the police paid him a visit to ask him about a theft from a grave. You see, dental records revealed that the body the police found when they went to investigate the tunnel after George dropped me off at the hospital, belonged to a homeless man. A homeless man who was buried close to twenty years previously.

George doesn’t think that the records of a previous case stretching back nearly two decades would be well kept enough to link this case with our episode all those years ago, but who knows. He says that a couple of police officers will probably be paying me a visit sooner or later.

Quite frankly they can pay me a visit whenever they like. I’ve got nothing to hide. Maybe I’ll go and pay them a visit. Maybe I’ll sit down with George and talk about our miserable existences. Maybe I’ll go back to that fucking tunnel tomorrow, because at this point I don’t have anything left to lose.

But maybe all this fucking bravado is just the gin talking. I feel weak, I don’t think I’ve eaten in a couple of days. I’m just going to take another swig and lie down. I’m so close to seeing Josie’s smile, I swear to fucking god…

56

This all happened last week. On Monday after practise I went to my friend Penny’s house, Laura my best friend was with us.

We had something to eat, did some homework and were then up in Penny's room messing around on Chatroulette talking to boys. Penny and Laura go on a fair bit and flirt with boys all over the world. It can be kinda fun as long as it doesn’t go too far. There was a thing about a year ago called the “Anti-boredom game” where basically boys would try to get you naked and doing all sorts of disgusting things over the app. Penny & Laura flashed their boobs a couple of times and they said they even watched a guy jerk off one time but that just seems gross.

We had finished chatting to some cute older guys in Sweden or Germany or somewhere when the next chat pops up. Normally people are facing into their webcam but this time we were looking straight at the back of someone’s head. He had crazy green curly hair and it was clearly a wig. As well as seeing the back of his head he had 2 mirrors set up on either side of his computer. They were angled towards the webcam so we could just see the side of his face in each mirror but none of his features. His face was covered in white paint. He started typing.

> Hi Girls. Do you want to answer 5 questions and make a ☹ sad clown happy 😊 ?

Penny was at the keyboard.

Sure. Fire away

> 😊 Good.

As the reply popped up on his screen he turned to face the mirror on his right. He had a big smiling clowns face. Red nose, exaggerated red smile and a big yellow star framed each eye. He carried on typing.

> Question 1. Are you girls happy today?

Yes.

> 😊 Good.

Another turn to the mirror on the right and a smiling, thumbs up from the happy clown face.

> Question 2. Is it nice weather where you are? It’s cold and rainy here in Clownland ☹

It’s lovely and sunny here, 75 degrees.

*> Good. Very Good. This is making me very happy. Thank you girls 😊 😊 *

Another turn to the mirror on the right and another smiling, thumbs up.

> Question 3. Do you prefer cats or dogs Penny?

Penny was suddenly freaked out and looked at Laura and me.

How do you know my name?

No reply.

How do you know my name?

> Your username is Penny_2003. It was an educated guess.

> Cats or dogs Penny?

Laura and I were laughing at Penny for flipping out when it was so obvious how he got her name.

Cats, dogs are so smelly and noisy.

> Oh dear. All clowns love dogs. That makes me sad ☹

This time he turned to the mirror on the left. His face was sad frown, but that wasn’t what freaked us all out. His face paint was different, his exaggerated clown lips were now black and his eyes looked bloodshot and like they had been crying for hours. The Yellow stars around the eyes were gone, instead they were framed by black rings and blood red tears were painted down his cheeks. It must have been some kind of trick with the mirror or lighting or something, there was no way he could have changed his make-up or put on any sort of mask as his profile could be seen in both mirrors. He carried on typing.

> Question 4. Is it true that you’re a fucking slut Penny?

I was shocked but Penny & Laura didn’t seem to care. Apparently boys say mean things all on the time on apps like this. Penny put up her middle finger to the webcam.

FUCK YOU

She typed.

> We’ll get to that part soon enough Penny, but first you have to answer my questions. You agreed to answer 5 questions.

> Question 4. Is it true that you’re a fucking slut?

No you pencil dick.

> Well according to Charlotte Murphy in your class you are.

Charlotte's a fat smelly whore, who the fuck cares what she thinks.

"Wait how does he know who's in our class." I said suddenly worried turning to Laura.

> I’ll be sure to pass on your regards.

> Question 5: Final question. Who would you like me to kill? You, or one of your delicious friends Laura or Megan? Of course I could kill myself instead?

“Wait, how the fuck does he know our names.” I was panicking now, my heart rising up in my chest. I felt like I couldn't breath. This had all turned horrible and I wanted it to stop.

Penny immediately hit the button to disconnect and move to the next chat. People trash talking on chat apps is no big deal. But horrible weird clowns threatening to kill you is too much. The screen searched but when a new chat popped up it was the same horrible clown.

> Question 5: Who would you like me to...

Penny hit the button again before the question could be typed out. A third time it went straight back to the clown figure.

> Question 5: who wou...

This time Laura grabbed the mouse and closed the entire programme.

I was totally freaked out, Penny and Laura were trying to laugh off the whole incident but I could tell that it had got to the. Penny’s phone pinged with a WhatsApp.

‘Question 5: Who would you like me to kill. You, Laura, Megan or myself?”

Laura begged Penny to go tell her mom & dad, but Penny had been banned from going on chat apps and didn’t want to get grounded. Another ping.

‘You’re right it is lovely and warm here. Much nicer than Clownland. You live in a nice neighbourhood.’

Penny replied. 'Leave us alone you prick, my dad is a cop and he will shoot you dead if you keep bothering us.'

Ping.

‘You agreed to answer 5 questions. Just come back onto chat and we can resolve this easy enough.'

We argued for 20 minutes. I begged them not to go back onto the Chatroulette app. Laura wanted to go back on, “Let’s just tell this prick to kill himself and be done with it.” Penny was undecided, it was her account after all that this creep had found us on. All the time we talked Penny's phone pinged over and over with the same question.

'Who do you want me to kill Penny?"

Eventually Laura convinced Penny and I was outvoted 2 to 1, we went back on line. He was there waiting for us as our first connection.

> Welcome back Ladies. Who’s it to be?

I see you’re back in Clowland you freak. You’re full of bullshit about being in my neighbourhood.

> Of course I am. Now stop procrastinating and make a choice…..

You, you sick weirdo. I choose for you to kill yourself.

We could see them now, revolvers laid out in front of each mirror.

> Are you sure Penny? What about Charlotte, the fat smelly whore. I could kill her if you like?

No. I want it to be you who dies.

> That would make me sad ☹.

I don’t give a shit as long as it makes you dead.

> OK then.

He looked to the right into the happy mirror. Picked up the gun, looked at it for a moment and then held it to the side of his head. He was smiling into the happy mirror when he pulled the trigger. A "BANG!" Flag came out of the end of the gun and he began laughing.

You said it would make you sad. That was the happy mirror. Penny typed.

> Clever girl. I’ll try again.

This time he picked up the sad mirror gun and turned to face the left-hand mirror. Again, the make-up change was a shock. He held the gun and frowned into the mirror.

He pulled the trigger.

All 3 of us screamed. His head was a crimson explosion. There was no way he could have faked it. His lifeless body just lolled in his chair, the top of his head a ruin of gore and bone. We must have carried on screaming and crying as a few moments later Penny’s mom burst into the room. We turned at the noise and Penny ran crying into her mom’s arms babbling an explanation.

When we looked back to the screen the clown was gone. The connection was gone, and the app was searching for our next stranger to chat to.


Two days later in school Charlotte Murphy confronted Penny during lunch break. “I was chatting to some weirdo on line last night who said he knew you Penny. He said you called me a fat whore. Well fuck you, you fucking slut.”

Penny was really upset. The last few days had been so traumatic with what we had all seen and Penny was worried that Charlotte might try to confront her again so I agreed to walk her home. When we got to her house she reached into the mailbox and her face when white when she pulled out her hand. There was a hand-written envelope which read.

‘To: Penny the fucking slut. Return Address: Clownland.’

Inside there was a clown's red nose, flecked with blood.

As we both looked around desperately Penny’s phone pinged with a Whatsapp.

‘You really do live in a nice neighbourhood Penny.’

13

part 3 part 2 part 1

The weather outside should have told me to go back home. But the months leading up to that were far worse than anything that a little rain.

I held my daughter's hand as we raced from the parking lot to the front doors of the small establishment.

Once inside I helped her take her coat off and she sat down quietly in the corner while I talked to the receptionist.

"Wellcome to the Kid's Kastle where all your children dreams can come true," she said with a bright smile.

"I'm Robert Colton. I had an appointment for my daughter," I told her.

She glanced past me to where my daughter was sitting and smiled at her. "You must be Rachel! How are you sweetie," she said as she kneeled down to meet my daughter's gaze.

She didn't respond and kept coloring for a moment so the receptionist leaned over to see what she was drawing. It didn't look like anything at the moment, just a big blob of red and black.

"I see that you want to be an artist," the worker said. Still my daughter said nothing.

"She doesn't really talk to strangers," I explained. The receptionist nodded and smiled.

"That's a very good motto to have, Rachel. Well I'm going to go talk to your daddy for a minute so would you like to see some of our toys?"

Rachel nodded and followed the worker toward the play area. I could see there were at least seven or eight other little girls her age.

"She May have a hard time adjusting. Terrible twos stayed with us for awhile," I told the receptionist as we walked back toward the office.

"I'm sure she will be just fine Mister Colton. I'll have our supervisor handle things from here," the worker said as she opened the door for me.

I sat down as the older woman finished some paperwork and then she fixed her gaze on me. "Mister Colton I'm so glad to see you picked us after all. I know your wife said you were shopping around for the type of facility that would meet both your busy schedules and your daughter's special needs," she said.

"It's you that deserves praise. It's been hard handling things at home since I lost my job," I answered.

"Well, I like to think every child deserves a chance to thrive. And of course every parent needs to feel their concerns are being voiced," she paused as she got out my file.

"Of course I know money is always an issue. But I am so glad Reverend Dumonte agreed to help cover the costs," she explained.

"He has been a close friend of the family for a long time," I told her.

"Okay I just need to go over a few things and then we'll have you all fixed up," she said.

"Does Rachel have any sort of dietary restrictions or allergies that you know of?"

I swallowed a little bit of spit. I hadn't expected to feel this nervous.

"She probably won't eat here at the day care. She is a very picky eater," I answered.

"Well hopefully we can change that. We fix a variety of foods designed to help promote nutrition and wholesome snacking," she answered back.

"Who do you want to list as your emergency contact besides you or your wife? Any grandparents?"

"Her grandparents are dead. You can put down Reverend Dumonte," I said.

"Oh I'm so sorry how long ago was that?" the office manager asked.

I looked at her for a moment and then replied, "How is that relevant?"

She seemed as surprised by my question as I was hers.

"Your wife told me that your daughter has experienced some traumatic things in her young life. I just want to know which issues we will be tackling first. As I'm sure you know, death can change a child," she explained.

I clenched my fists under her desk. Of course Vanessa had said that. She was trying to draw sympathy from them. Anything to make this work.

Now I was going to have to adapt.

"They died when she was about a year old. So I don't think she would remember them very well," I answered. It was as close to the truth as I could possibly get.

"You would be surprised how much a child remembers from those early years," she said as she wrote something down.

"All right Mister Colton. I think that's everything. If there was anything i forgot you can always call me," she said.

I shook her hand and left the daycare around nine in the morning. The rain was coming down hard but that didn't stop me from going where I needed to.

I sat in my car near the waterfront for about an hour. It felt like an eternity before a large black van pulled up beside me.

I jumped in and looked at the two men sitting there across from me. They looked just as nervous as I was.

"Drop your cells into this," the driver told us all. He passed a big bucket of water.

The other men hesitated for a second but I obeyed without hesitation. I was running on a schedule and the sooner this was over the better.

They followed my example and then the van lurched forward.

We drove for about half an hour. I knew at some point we had crossed the county lines and were using back roads. But because the windows were tinted I couldn't be sure.

Finally the van stopped and we were led out into the deep woods.

Everything looked exactly the way it had been before. The driver told us to sit outside on a small make shift bench as he walked toward the cabin nearby.

"It stopped raining," the man next to me said. I didn't bother making small talk.

I was too focused on the man walking up toward us. His soft green eyes fell on me.

"Well. Today is full of surprises isn't it?" He said. I looked toward the ground. Then he gestured for me to come inside the cabin.

He pushed the old wooden door aside and made me sit down while he brewed some coffee.

"You have guts Robert. I will give you that," he said. He paused and passed me a cup before sitting down as well.

"You know why I'm here," I told him. "Of course I do," he answered.

"We've been patient. Vanessa and I... it's been three years," I said.

He didn't make an answer. I felt my lip trembling.

"How much longer?" I asked. He gave a long sigh.

"You know I just don't get you two. First you come to asking for help. Now you come again, resentful of what I have given you," he remarked.

"No. No it's not that..." I said.

"Sounds to me like you don't really appreciate my gift after all," he said looking me straight in the eye.

I felt my hands trembling.

"We do," I said. I wanted to cry.

"Do you remember what I told you? When we first met," he said.

I nodded weakly.

"I need to hear you say it, Robert," he insisted.

"That we have to be patient," I said.

"Exactly. You think three years is a long time? Try three thousand," he snapped back.

"I'm sorry," I stammered.

"You want to be free, don't you?" He asked as he placed a hand on my shoulder.

"More than anything," I told him.

"Then you already know what you have to do," he answered.

I didn't say another word.

I got up and walked back and sat in the van while the others took their turn.

It was almost two in the afternoon when I got back to the car.

I sat there a long time staring at the water. I thought of how easy it would be to just go over to the edge and step off.

The water looked so tempting. I got out of my car and sat on the edge for a long time.

I closed my eyes and thought about Vanessa. This wouldn't be fair to her. I forced myself back in the car and drove home.

She was making a sandwich for me but her face told me she was stressed out.

She passed me the food and we sat there and ate quietly for a second.

"What did he say?" Vanessa finally asked.

She was hanging on my every word. "It's not time yet," I told her. She dropped her plate and started to cry.

"This can't be happening," she sobbed.

I let her calm down before speaking again.

"There... might be another way," I said.

She froze and her face went pale. "If he found out...." she muttered.

"The Reverend seems to think that won't happen," I replied.

She squeezed my hand. "I... I just don't know Robert. What if we fail?" she asked.

"We can't fail," I told her.

There really wasn't anything else to say.

I checked my watch and realized it was almost time. "I have to go pick her up," I said.

Vanessa kissed me. I saw the storm clouds were finally parting from the horizon as I drove back across town.

I told myself that the plan would work. Patrick had said he had dealt with something like this before.

I had to have faith.

When I got back to the daycare the receptionist smiled at me.

"Rachel has been absolutely perfect today, Mister Colton. And quite the artist," she said.

She walked back to get my little girl as I looked at the drawings she had made.

I felt a lump in my stomach. The receptionist returned a minute later.

"See you tomorrow Rachel," she said.

"I'm sorry... I can't do this," I said abruptly.

The daycare worker looked at me in shock. "Is something wrong Mister Colton?" she asked. "I'm cancelling my daughter's services. I'm sorry," I said as I picked up Rachel and then left before she could ask any other question.

I got her in her car seat and turned on the engine. I had crumpled up the drawing in my hand. But I stared at it for a moment as my daughter hummed softly in the back seat.

"Sweetheart... why did you draw this?" I asked softly. I didn't expect an answer. And she didn't give one. I showed her the picture and tried something else. "Did he tell you to draw this?" I asked.

"Who Daddy?" she asked softly. "You know who," I replied.

She paused and smiled at me. “I need you to say it,” she said.

The lump in my throat returned.

“The Hollow Man,” I said. She went back to humming.

"He likes my drawings," Rachel finally answered.

I looked at the small cabin she had drawn on the paper and then crumpled it up again and tossed it to the floor.

2.3k

Nearly my whole life I had a frequent, strange occurance. It wasn't until very recently that I discovered the cause. I'll try my best to recount these events as precisely and coherently as I can.

I remember the first time it happened. I was sitting in my 7th grade history class idly twirling a strand of hair while Mr. Robinson was writing on the white board. I felt a tiny drop on my shoulder. So small that if I had actually been paying attention in class I would have never noticed it. I instinctively put my hand on my shoulder to wipe away the wetness, but to my surprise it was dry. I glanced up at the ceiling expecting to see a leak. Nothing. I made a quick turn and looked behind me. There was nothing other than an empty desk.  Years passed and I never gave that incident another thought- until it happened again. I was perched up on my bathroom counter, both knees on opposite sides of the sink examining my face for any blemishes, and it happened. The drop hit my shoulder. The same spot. With no evidence it was ever there. Not a tiny speckle of water was on my shoulder. It was completely dry. I had told my mom about the strange event that just took place. She simply glanced up from the book she was reading, took one look at my face and said, "Honey, what have I told you about picking at your face? You're as red as a tomato. You'll grow out of pimples, but you cant grow out of scars." She was right, the pimples went away as I got older, but the dripping never did.

It wasn't frequent. I'd feel the familiar drop every two or three years. Just enough so I could never think I'd made it up. I'd learned to drive, gotten a dog, gotten married, bought a house, and had two children all while the drops kept falling on my shoulder. It was never a problem, mostly just a mild inconvenience I'd assumed was a side effect of stress.

But eventually things got worse. I was sitting at work when I felt the drop. I rubbed my shoulder out of habbit, then felt another drop pass straight through my hand and onto my shoulder. It had never happened twice before. I found myself glancing up at the ceiling knowing that nothing would be there. After that day the drops became a monthly occurance. Then weekly. Then daily. I was going to doctors, on all types of medicine, and still- nothing changed. My husband, Tod, grew more concerned with every day that passed.

Thud! "Well it's real to HER! I want solutions. Not theories, not sympathy, not more pills- Solutions!" I grabbed Tod's clenched up fist off the table. His knuckles were white from the force he landed them with. "Please, Doctor Shanon. I assure you, I'm not making this up." The doctor sighed, "I understand, but we've tried countless treatments. We've exhausted every option." I could see Tod's jaw clenching up. I breathed in deeply trying to maintain the peace. "Is there anything else we can try?" I could hear the pleading in my own voice. The constant dripping was driving me crazy. I just wanted it to stop. The Doctor crossed her legs and sat up, "Well we do have a few more options, but you have to understand that with these things there are certain-" She stopped mid sentence. Mouth still slightly agap, eyes still focused on mine.

"Doctor Shanon?" The edges of her lips began to twitch. A small gurgling sound was coming out of her mouth from somewhere deep in her throat. Something about it was inherently wrong. Unnatural. Her pupils dilated as she slowly raised her hand and pointed a finger at me. I sat there frozen. Horrified by what I was seeing, but unable to look away. "What the fuck," Tod muttered under his breath, as he opened the door to the hallway and called for help. Doctor Shanon's eyes rolled to the back of her head as she continued to point at me. The gurgling sound becoming louder. Angrier. Another doctor walked into the room and quickly made his way to her. Just as he reached her she began speaking very quietly. Repeating the same thing over and over, voice still gurgiling, finger still pointing, "Duérmete niño. Duérmete ya. Que viene el lobo. Y te llevará."

Tod shook his head as we made our way down the hallway towards the exit. "These doctors are idiots. I mean really, she had the audacity to call you crazy when clearly she's the one with the issues." I normally would have laughed, but instead I placed my shaking hand in his. "My mother used to sing that lullaby to me." Tod looked down at me, "You mean that crap she was saying?" I nodded slowly. "It's a song meant to scare children to sleep. If they stay awake the lobo will get them." "Lobo?" "It means wolf." Tod let out a small chuckle as we reached the exit. I wished for a moment I could be as unphased as he was, but something felt wrong deep in my gut.

I felt the rain as soon we stepped outside. "The Hell?" I moaned as I fumbled around in my bag for my umbrella. I could feel my clothes already getting damp. "I thought we were in for a sunny weekend." I snapped open the umbrella and caught Tod giving me a strange look. "Maria, its not raining" I laughed a little before I realized he was serious. I outstretched my arm and saw it was dry. "No I- I can feel it everywhere, Tod." He gave me a sad look full of pity I didn't want. "I can fucking feel it" Even the umbrella was no help. The drops were all over me. I slapped my arms, slapped my legs, slapped every bit of skin I could see, but the damn drips didn't stop. It was too much to handle. I broke down in tears, collapsing to my knees as Tod dropped down to cradle my head in his arms. "I just want it to stop," I sobbed. Tod rubbed my back gently, quietly whispering next to my head. "What's wrong with me?" I cried into his shoulder for what felt like hours. After I'd calmed down, I wiped the tears and snot from my face. "I'm sorry," I sniffled.

Tod whispered something just quietly enough that I couldn't quite hear it. "What?" I asked as I pulled back to get a look at his face. His eyes were white and he was pointing at me, whispering. "Tod, stop it." I pulled myself out of his arms, but he just sat there frozen, whispering quietly. "This isn't funny Tod." He didn't even blink. I leaned in to hear what he was saying. He was repeating just one word: Lobo. My heart skipped a beat. The world fell silent. Tod sat there quietly still pointing, and in a moment of horror I realized he wasnt pointing at me, he was pointing behind me.

I gathered every bit of courage I had and turned around. I vommitted when I saw him. He was darker than the night sky and stood nearly 9 feet tall. His arms stretched out twice that length, with faces filling in every twist and turn. Faces full of anger, hate, despair, and agony. Faces that deformed, rotted, and then reincarnated right before my eyes. Out of all the faces, his was the worse. It was as if he'd found a wolf, cut off its face, and plastered it onto his. He wrenched of death and decay. Something deep within me knew that this was an ancient being. It was instinct. Every fiber of my being was screaming for me to get away. He reached out towards me, and I sat there frozen in fear as his arms tripled in length. I knew I should have ran, should have screamed, should have done anything, but all I could focus on was the face at the tip of his right arm. My face. Twisted in a million different ways.

What happened next was a blur. I wish I could say I remember how I got away- if I got away, but I don't. I just remember suddenly being held in my mothers arms, and I'm ashamed to say I punched her. She forgave me of course, being in the state of fear and confusion I was in. I remember the doctor muttering how "unbelievable" this was under his breathe. I remember countless tests, but I'll never remember anything quite as vividly as I remember him.

My name is Maria Avila. I'm 13 years old. I was in a coma for 4 months. A leak saved my life. A leak right above my shoulder, that had only been dripping for 12 minutes. The doctors call it a miracle. After hearing my story, my mom claims it was her lullaby that woke me. I imagined 30 years worth of life, my husband, my children, all of it, in 12 small minutes. I'm here to warn you. If you ever feel a drip you can't explain. Or perhaps a small breeze no one else can feel, wake up. The Lobo is lurking, and he's itching to gain a new face.

11

That was the first email he ever sent me. In the subject line "D0n't Ign0re!" stood alone. To begin with I was pretty sure it was some scam mail or "Meet 40 hot females in your area today!". I was expecting to find myself writing an interesting encounter on 419Eater about my very own Nigerian prince waiting for my bank details!

According to my account, the email had been scanned and marked safe for opening. I opened it out of curiosity and this is what it said:

E,

My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact, I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape.

B

What the hell had I just read? My body immediately turned to ice. There was something very wrong about this email and the more curious I grew, the more I feared. Something about it felt strangely familiar so I decided to stupidly try and figure it out. The email address seemed just like another spam bot. Maybe that's what it actually is? Just trying to get my attention to buy some edgy product.

I googled the contents of the email and as it turns out it's actually a quote from American Psycho. Creepy? maybe. Terrifying? Yes.

Today I decided to visit my local library and grab a copy just to see what this quote may be referring to or could possibly tell me who sent me the email. I have never read the book or seen the movie so it was for sure intriguing to me. I mean shit, the name is American Psycho and it has something to do with me apparently? I'm going to look into it.

I opened the page and out fell one of those Polaroid pictures. It was a picture of my house which looked like it had been taken a few years ago. What made it even creepier? On the back is written "Sweet girl will never ignore me again 1974".

WHAT THE SHIT?

I have no idea who this person is referring to with "Sweet girl" but I know that it definitely wasn't me considering I was born in '93. This should make me feel more at ease but it really doesn't.

I don't think my feet touched the floor before I reached the bus station. I completely forgot to check the book out in all my confusion and terror to see if i could figure anything else out but I don't think I want to. I don't know if I should go home tonight but I can't leave my dog there.

I can upload pictures of the emails and stuff if anyone wants to see but that's not exactly my priority right now.

I am less terrified as I write this because of the date on the picture but why would this person email me now? Should I respond to the email? What would I even say? Is someone trying to fuck with me? I am an anxious person anyway and this may send me over the edge.

7

I've heard of secret organisations. Never did I think I would join one. But I did. I didn't seek it out. They found me and they wouldn't take no for an answer.


I had been working for my new company for three days when Jeff came over and properly introduced himself.

"Hi, Justin is it?"

"Yeah, that's me."

"I've been reviewing some of your code, it's pretty impressive. Usually the contractors they send over are sloppy. Not you though, you have an elegance to your programming."

"Thank you very much."

Someone turned around from their terminal and said, "You should take that as a compliment."

"I do."

"Don't mind Karl here. His code would be better suited in a Bolognese, so much spaghetti."

"Fuck you."

"And fuck you too," Jeff said, laughing with Karl, "Say, we're going out for drinks tonight if you are interested."

"Yeah, that would be great. What time?"

Jeff checked his watch.

"It's almost five. How about we call it a day."

Karl had shut his PC down before Jeff had time to reconsider.

"Never hand them an excuse to finish early."


I was apprehensive to move to a different country for a job, especially one halfway around the world. It was to be my first time without the friends I had grown up with, and that scared me. I never knew what lonely felt like until the last few days, travelling home alone to my rented ranch house and spending the evenings watching television programs I didn't recognise.


The bar we arrived at was a bit of a dive. Not something I would have chosen to patronise, especially on my own. I half expected the occupants to turn and stare me down as I entered. However, these people were already too drunk to even notice the extra bodies shuffle in.

"I'll pay for the drinks tonight guys. We are ahead of schedule and it's the weekend. Work hard and play hard, that's my motto."

"Since when do you have a motto?" Karl asked.

"Fuck you again," Jeff said, slapping him on the back just that bit too hard.

We sat around a large wooden table. I watched as some other patrons tried to play pool. I think the white spent more time in the pocket than the other balls.

"If you don't know Justin, he was sent to us by the motherland. He's the hotshot that's going to help us get the backend connectivity stable, so we don't have a repeat of the last release. He's much better than his predecessor."

"I wouldn't call myself a hotshot."

"You're being modest. If you saw the code I do, your brain would take a shit."

There were three others around the table, not counting Jeff, Karl and I. They hung their heads, obviously hurt by Karl's scathing review, even though it was done in jest.

Drinks were downed and we got drunk. I felt my inhibitions fall away as I began to join in the conversation. I retold stories about my programming past, far too dull to retell here. I fitted in like a hand to glove. Karl on the other hand was more like OJ. He didn't want to fit, he actively thrashed against the good atmosphere that was now developing.

"Are you okay, Karl?" I asked, as if I had known him for years.

"He's just nervous, he has his initiation to do tomorrow."

"What's that?" I asked intrigued.

Jeff thrust his hand out on the table in front of me.

"Do you see that?" he said.

The golden ring glinted in the florescent light, what looked like the profile of a large cat, its mouth open in a roar, decorated the middle.

I nodded.

"We're members of the Ailuros Brotherhood."

The others showed their rings.

"Karl's a bit of a wuss."

He stormed off and placed a dollar on the pool table, signalling he wanted the next game.

Jeff leaned over.

"It's only a club really, nothing more than that. Just a bunch of like minded men getting together to eat some good food and drink some good beer."

"Pretty much like tonight then?" I asked.

"You could say that," he said, before falling into a fit of mirth.

"Hey," he continued, stopping his laughter abruptly, "you should join."

"I don't know," I said apprehensive after seeing Karl was very visibly upset.

"Nonsense, let me make a call and I can get it all set up tonight."

"Please, I don't want to be a bother," I replied, feeling momentarily sober.

"I don't want to be a bother!", he said mocking my accent, "could you be more English!"

Jeff walked away from the table and took out his cellphone.

I felt odd, being left with these three guys I'd not so much as uttered a word to in the time I'd known them.

"Don't do it," one of them said.

"Shut the fuck up, Chris," another replied, delivering a whack to the arm of the guy who was obviously Chris.

"Why, is there some sort of hazing?"

Chris didn't say another word.

"All sorted, we needed one more," Jeff said, returning to the table.

"I really don't know."

"Too late, you can't back down now. Unless you want to be on the first plane back to Ye Olde England?"

I looked at him, trying to work out if he was serious or not. The gaze he returned was stern, he didn't blink, or twitch. Just a deathly stare you would show when you wanted to prove you would win in a fight.

"I'm joking," he said, his face relaxing, a large grin lighting up his face, "but you are going, I insist."

"I'm only here for six months though, won't I have to pay a membership or something?"

"No money at all. Nada. Just discount beer, great food and great company. I'm not going to take no for an answer."

"Okay, sure," I said, relenting.

"Beautiful," he said, raising his arms up.

The others joined in his celebration. Chris hung his head, not sharing in the same enthusiasm.

"Fucking drunks," Karl said, returning.

The same two men continued to chase the last two balls around the table.

"They don't know how to play the fucking game, I'm going to be waiting all night."

"Hey, Karl, Justin is going to be joining."

"What, really? You convinced him too?"

"What can I say? I'm a charmer. Would anyone like any more beers? I'm buying," Jeff asked.

I nodded.

"I'm going to have a cigarette."

I got up to leave.

"You're not in limey land anymore kiddo, you can smoke inside."

It was as if he found it quaint.

"I'd like to get some fresh air."

"I hope I don't need to point out the irony of that statement."

"I'll join you," Karl said.

A cool breeze came down from the mountains and perked me up a little. I offered Karl a cigarette.

"I'm fine, just wanted to get some air."

I lit up and took a deep drag.

"So you are going to become a member of the brotherhood too then?" he asked.

"I don't think I have much of a choice."

"He can be a little pushy."

"A little?"

Karl laughed.

"Jeff's good at his job, in and out of work."

"So, is he like a recruitment officer?"

"I guess you could say that."

"They aren't going to make me do anything weird, like fuck a goat?"

"I don't know. Chris says it's quite intense. But he's still here, so it can't be that bad."

"He told me not to do it. He was quite adamant."

"He said that to me too. Jeff's a good guy though, he wouldn't want to upset his star programmers, would he?"

Karl pushed my shoulder with his.

"I guess you're right. So when's your initiation?"

"Tonight," he said and his demeanour changed.

"Like you said, it can't be that bad."

"I've heard stories, like they make you drink blood and wear the freshly skinned hide of an animal. My parents say it's a cult."

"Isn't it just some big boys club?"

"That's what Jeff and the others say. I have a bad feeling about it."

It was starting to bother me now and I wanted to back out.

"We should go back in, they'll be wondering what's taking us so long."

We rejoined the group. I had another two beers and Jeff drove me home around 21:30.


I woke with a headache, and was relieved to remember it was Saturday. I had a text from Jeff saying he'd pick me up in the evening. My heart dropped, remembering what I'd agreed to.

I ate breakfast and did a quick search on the Internet for the Ailuros Brotherhood. There were a few mentions on a local news site, saying they helped build a community centre, as well as some charity events. They were also big into conservation of the local wildlife. The mountain lion population had grown significantly under their watch, nothing but nice things. Even the local mayor gave an all singing and dancing soundbite as to how positive the group was for the community.

I'd always wanted to do some charity work, so maybe it was a good thing. And I was complaining to myself how I didn't know anyone. This was surely a way I could meet people.


Jeff arrived on time and with a modicum of anticipation, I got in his car. We drove in silence as we left the small town and headed up into the mountains.

"How did Karl get on last night?" I asked.

After a long pause he said, "I don't think it's for him. It's not for everyone."

"Oh, so if I don't like it, there's no pressure?"

"Yeah, you could say that."

I instantly felt more comfortable. I was worried I'd be forced to join.

"So what is going to happen?"

He peered over and grinned, "If I told you, it would spoil the surprise."

"I think I'd prefer to know something."

He sighed.

"You will have to wear a blindfold. But that's all I'm saying."

I didn't know how to take that. Having to put my trust in someone I barely knew.

We turned off the main road and followed a narrow track through a wooded area. The moon did its best to illuminate our way as the road twisted upwards. A large log cabin came into view. Dozens of torches burned outside, guiding us the final few hundred yards.

It wasn't what I was expecting at all. A large banner with the cat emblem hung from the outside wall. Two men dressed in ornate uniforms guarded the entrance.

We parked out front. The men approached and opened our car doors. We followed in silence as they allowed us entry.

"I have to go and get changed, why don't you have a beer at the bar," he said, pointing to the small room to the left.

He disappeared into the room opposite before I could protest.

The man behind the bar passed me a bottle, popping off the cap before I said a word. His golden ring glittered in the light.

"How much is that?" I asked, fumbling for my wallet.

"On the house," he said.

I turned around and leaned on the counter, surveying the room. If I wasn't mistaken, the mayor sat chatting to someone. I was sure it was him, I recognised him from the video I saw earlier.

Another man, looking as similarly lost as I, sat at a table on his own.

"Hi, I'm Justin," I said, offering my hand.

"Luke," he said, gesturing for me to sit down.

"Are you new?" I asked.

He nodded.

"My initiation is tonight."

"Oh really?" I replied, "me too."

"How did you get involved?"

"My dad's the mayor."

"Is that him over there?" I said, pointing.

"Yes. You're not from around here though?"

"No, I'm from England. One of my work colleagues suggested I join. How about you?"

"My Dad's been going on about it for a long time, and I finally relented. He said this town needs more of us. I think he's right. They do so much good."

"It's time," I heard from a voice I didn't recognise.

The barman, the mayor and the guy he was talking to got up and left.

"I suddenly feel out of the loop," I said, seeing the men leave.

"Tell me about it."

"Come with me," a man at the doorway said.

We followed him out and into the room Jeff entered minutes before.

"You'll need to wear this," he said, handing us brown leather tunics.

We slipped them on. I noticed small flecks of blood on the material. I started breathing heavily.

"It's natural to feel a bit nervous," the man said, "You'll need put this on too."

It was a hood made out of thick fabric. Reluctantly I placed it over my head and I was in pitch black.

"Tell me if this it too tight," he said, tying something around my cheeks.

I waited while I assumed he did the same for Luke.

"It won't be long now."

I stood there for what seemed like minutes. My face sweated and my breathing laboured from the lack of air.

"I can't breath too well," I said.

"That's just nerves. Relax and you'll be fine."

There were two knocks on the door.

"It's time."

As the door opened, the sounds of murmuring flooded in.

Someone grabbed my arm and whispered to me to follow.

My heart raced as I realised I could no longer turn back.

The voices got louder and louder and I was told to stop. A few moments later, the talking tailed off.

"You will kneel in front of the reverential master!" boomed out loudly.

The man helped me to the floor, my knees resting on a soft block.

"Have you come here willingly and of your own accord?" I heard from a voice I recognised, it was Jeff.

I wanted to say no, that he had forced me. But I couldn't.

"Yes," I answered, and Luke replied soon after. His voice broke as he did.

"Are you of sound mind and body and not a member of an organisation that would do us harm?"

"Yes," I replied again.

Luke sounded as if he was about to break down in tears.

"Are you ready to pledge your soul to Ailuros and do whatever is necessary to fulfil her wishes?"

I gasped. This wasn't what I expected.

"Yes," Luke said, it was obvious he was in some sort of panic.

"Initiate, I'll ask again," Jeff said, "are you ready to pledge your soul to Ailuros and do whatever is necessary to fulfil her wishes?"

"Yes," I said, knowing that no other answer would satisfy him.

"Bring them to the altar."

The man heaved me up and walked me forward.

Murmurs erupted again as we approached.

"Silence," Jeff announced, "You will place their hands on the altar."

I felt the grain of wood under my finger tips. My hands shook as the adrenaline pumped into my veins.

"You will drink from the blood of Ailuros, binding your soul to hers."

The man forced the cold metal cup into my hand and pulled the hood up, allowing me to drink. The tie around my face stopping me from seeing.

I sipped, expecting to taste wine. But instead feeling the metallic taste of copper.

I heard heaving from Luke next to me.

"You will not defile her life blood by letting it spill on the floor."

A whip cracked and Luke cried.

I took a deep breath and gulped down the liquid. There was so much of it, I thought I was going to be sick. I slammed the tankard down, to rapturous applause.

"Drink it, son," a man said faintly from afar.

I waited anxiously for my next instruction.

Luke sobbed.

"Now your blood must be taken, so Ailuros can taste you as well."

The man placed a tourniquet round my arm and tightened. He pumped my hand before plunging a needle into my arm.

I stifled a yelp, feeling the lifeblood drain from me. I was confused and overwhelmed with what was happening, I didn't have time to protest.

He removed the rubber tubing.

"You will kneel and wait to hear of your approval."

He forced me to the ground.

We waited. Luke sobbed quietly to himself.

"Everything will be fine," I whispered.

"Silence," Jeff said, as his fist landed on my face, "there must be silence when Ailuros considers you."

Luke cried audibly.

"Don't hit my son," a man pleaded from afar.

Luke squealed as I assumed another of Jeff's punches rained down on him.

Be quiet, I mentally pleaded with him.

"She approves!" Jeff shouted.

The room cheered. It was so loud I instinctively brought my hands to my ears.

"Take them to the chamber."

I let out a big sigh, believing the ordeal was finally over. It was much worse than I could ever have imagined. I didn't know how I was going to look Jeff in the eye again. He tricked me into this. I didn't know if I could forgive him.

The man helped me to my feet and walked me forward. The people in the room started talking amongst themselves. It was finally over.

He led me out of the room, Luke continued to breathe erratically as he held back the tears.

"It's over now," I said in a whisper.

"Thank God, that was the worst experience in my life."

I felt the man's hand leave mine and held my eyes shut, so when he removed the hood, the light wouldn't blind me. Seconds passed and nothing happened.

A metal door squeaked shut behind me.

"Hello? What's going on?" I asked, my voice echoed around the room.

A scraping sound rang out, as something opened in front of us.

"Is anyone there?" I asked again.

"Dad? Where are you?" Luke asked, his anxiety back in earnest.

I heard bassy purrs and recognised it instantly, a large cat.

"Stay still and quiet," I whispered to Luke.

"I don't want to be here anymore," he said panicking, "Let me out!"

He ran in the darkness, and banged on the metal door.

"Let me out! Let me out!"

"Shhh."

But it was too late.

I heard a loud roar, and then a scream, followed by many more. You can never be prepared to hear someone being eaten alive. The ripping of flesh is something you recognise even when you've never heard it. Luke whimpered, then let out a large breath.

I wanted to help him, but knew I couldn't. I stayed as still as I could and waited for whatever it was to finish its meal.

The creature roared and I shook. The sounds of many padded feet ran into the room and started gorging on what I expected was the remains of Luke. I prayed to a God I didn't know existed that He'd let me live.

I wasn't aware of the animals leaving. It was only when the metal door opened again that I awoke from my semi-trance.

A man took my arm and led me out.

The room was filled with the sound of murmurs again.

I felt the tie around my face release. The hood was removed before I could close my eyes to adjust. The spotlight that shone on me was so bright.

"We have a chosen one!" Jeff announced.

And for the first time, I saw the room. Ornate pillars ran from the ground to the lofted ceiling. Rows of people filled the seating on both sides of this grand hall.

Everyone stood and applauded. I gazed around the room. I saw Chris and the other guys. I saw the mayor. He clapped reluctantly, his eyes red and his face drenched in tears.

Jeff lifted my hand and placed a golden ring on my index finger.

"Welcome brother of Ailuros."

I was paraded through the hall and back into the room where I was dressed. Jeff lifted off the tunic. I saw that I was covered in blood.

"I'll get you some new clothes," he said, "that's the least I can do."

"I don't know what just happened. Did Luke die?"

"Don't think of it like that, think of it as you were chosen. Just like we all were."

"What happened to Karl? He didn't leave did he?" "He wasn't chosen. You were. You should feel proud."

I understood why the mountain lion population were doing so well.

"Now it's up to you to persuade Josh to join."

"Who's Josh?"

"He's Karl's replacement."

"But why?" I said, confused.

"Ailuros always needs feeding."

xx

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4

It's been a long stretch at work these past few months, and my vacation time finally came. I'm a resident fresh out of med school, actually think my last day as a student was a year ago today, so I got loans to pay and a meager salary. As such, my big vacation plan was to spend a weekend visiting my long distance girlfriend before driving down to spend the week at home with my family. It's nothing extravagant, but it suffices for a break.

The house I grew up in is set on a half acre situated on a terrace. If you go in the back yard, between my dad's garden and a line of trees there's a big rock that overlooks a field, probably a 40ft drop. This was the site of the Battle of Shiloh, known as one of the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War. It's a popular school field trip destination and there's often amateur historians poking around the sites trying to find interesting things, but the locals know a secret.

When the kids leave and access to the site closes things get quiet. If the winds are calm, there's no rain, and the sun is beginning to set, you can actually see the battle. It's a phenomenon that's been recorded from time to time at various other battlegrounds. It would be inaccurate to call them "ghosts" because they're not spirits in a sense, but a few theories have been proposed. Some people say it's just visual hallucination triggered by looking out on a vast open field and your brain "sees" what it expects to see. Another theory proposes it's an "afterimage" of sorts, and something about the event leaves an imprint of sorts in the space-time continuum and what you see is the imprint. A third theory, one that seems most appealing to me, is that the site is an actual rift in the space-time continuum and you're actually looking at the battle as it's happening. Whatever the cause, it's been a local secret for generations.

I got to the house a few days ago at night. I had a long drive from my girlfriend's, one I will need to tell another day. Suffice to say, I was exhausted and I didn't even bring in my bags. I found my parents sitting in their recliners watching MSNBC, as is their nightly ritual. My brother was laying on the couch watching youtube videos on his Ipad. We all said our hellos and I sat down. Normally my parents would ask me how my trip was, but the first thing out of my dad's mouth was "can you believe all the shit happening with Trump?"

In truth I had not really had time to follow the news and only heard snippets about his latest scandals. But I played along and was like "a little, what's going on now?"

Despite being from a small town in the south, my dad is a bleeding heart liberal. You could tell him Donald Trump kicked puppies and he'd believe it. As such I was treated to a five minute rant about affairs, collusions, conspiracies, everything. My mom rolled her eyes at the end. She's a card carrying democrat herself, but even still those rants can be a bit much. We then got to the personal stuff, like how have things been and what's going on at work. All in all a typical visit.

The next day, I got up and went to the gym with my brother. He broke up with his girlfriend a few months ago and and learned his going back to school was going to be delayed due to scheduling and fell into a deep depression. In that time he got back into going to the gym. It was fun and got us back into hanging out with each other. I think he appreciated my suggestions to get into working out to deal with his feelings. When we were finished we came back home, and my dad was there. He asked if we wanted to go out to eat with him. I went, but my brother didn't want to.

A few times per week my dad goes to his usual restaurant in the city, Saint Lucia's Cafe. They specialize in Caribbean food, and while not the greatest it's pretty cheap. The employees are all 40 year old white people with tattoos, like hipsters who never grew up. I'm sure one of them went to the Caribbean once and brought back recipes. The point is, I go because my dad likes it, and I'm sure he likes it for the liberal atmosphere. We got to talking about work and stuff as we normally do, then I noticed a sign in the corner "Transit Now, May 1st." I asked my dad what that as about, and he went into one of his platform speeches.

"We need to do something about the traffic here, it's just getting to be too much," he said as our server placed our food on the table. "Right James?"

"Actually, I might vote no," said James through his massive hipster beard. "I just think we could use tax money for better use."

As he walked away, my dad was like "huh? oh well." He's usually shocked when somebody disagrees with him. I felt kinda bad for him, as this was his echo chamber.

After we were finished, we went back home and my dad got ready for work. I spent the afternoon browsing Reddit and sipping coffee and thinking of what to make everyone for dinner. Ravioli and salad. That's what it would be.

After dinner, my mom said to me "you know, it's almost sunset, and no rain in sight. Wanna go see the battle?"

I hadn't watched the battle in probably 5-6 years, I figured why not? Not like I was expecting anything new or if watching thousands of men get shot and stabbed to death was something particularly interesting/ healthy, but it was our community secret so might as well go for old time sake. My brother also wanted to come, so we grabbed a six pack of Spring Ale my brother brought home and an open bottle of moonshine and headed to the rock.

"Man, shit's getting fucked up, that's all I can say," said my brother as he put down the cooler.

"What do you mean?" I asked, knowing what I was in for.

"The world, work, Trump," he said. "It's all fucked up and people don't care."

My brother is not what you'd consider an intellectual, so this was the extent of his political and social commentary.

"Let me tell you," he continued. "Mr. Thomson at work is fucking up. He gave Trey the wrong shift even though he said he had a doctor's appointment. When Trey complained he told him employment was at-will. And you know our union is getting busted up because of regulations and stuff. I don't know."

I took a sip of my beer and stared off into the distance. The orange of the sunset was falling on the field. In the distance I could make out blue uniformed men holding rifles emerging over a hill.

My brother continued to talk, but in much quieter tones. I don't know if being too loud makes the replay fade, but we've always used hushed tones when watching.

"Yeah, Shana also had her hours cut after management found out she wore a BLM shirt to the company picnic" my brother whispered. "We think she should sue."

I nodded. Gray uniformed men now rushed from the trees and opened fire. A few of the Union soldiers were hit, then they returned fire. On the far side of the field I could see Gen. Jonston on a horse signalling his men to charge in a flank. But up from the riverbank came more Union soldiers led by Gen. Grant.

After a few minutes of fighting, we watched as the Confederate soldiers fell back into the treeline. The union soldiers regathered themselves and began pursuit. Then shots came out from the trees, and more Confederate soldiers came from the flanks. Union soldiers began to fire in retreat as they tried to make it back to the hill. One shot hit Gen. Johnston, and he fell from his horse. Unshaken, the Confederate army continued to advance and brought out their cannons. They fired into the Union ranks leaving multiple bodies on the field. The Union army returned fire with their own cannons but were unable to reach the Confederates as the army had not advanced them. Finally, in a hail mary move the Confederates charged the wounded Union army with bayonettes and managed to capture Gen. Grant as the beaten Union army retreated back to the riverbank. They tied up Grant and brought him back to the trees and presumably back to their camp. They had won the Battle of Shiloh.

My brother and I looked at each other with mouths agape and fear in our eyes. That's not how it happened.

71

It was the summer of 2001. I remember being four years old and laying on the bed beside my mother, soaking in the heat of Mumbai, India with much maturity and patience. Our apartment didn't have an air conditioner back in the day. I was visibly uncomfortable, not due to the heat.

"What happened, son?" asked my mother, turning her face away from the fashion magazine she had been reading.

"I have a headache," I said in my kiddish and unbroken voice. My mother to this day claims that that was the sweetest I have complained of a discomfort.

My mother placed her magazine down on the side table and rubbed my head with her loving caress. It was a lot like medicine, because it seemed to work. Within two minutes, the headache had disappeared.

"Are you feeling okay, now?" she asked with her hand placed on my forehead. I was getting warm for some reason, but I did not feel feverish.

The words that escaped my mouth still shake my mother to this day. "Grandpa will die next month," I said, as casually as an infant takes their ABCDs.

I did not realise the gravity of what I had said until the day it happened. My paternal grandpa passed exactly a month later, due to a heart attack. We flew to Kolkata (we are a Bengali family) where my parents helped with the services, while I lodged at my cousin sister's house so I wasn't left alone. It was a therapeutic time, for my cousin helped me forget what death was, by keeping me engaged with board games.

Little did I know, we were to shift to Kolkata soon. My father had been transferred to a better job with better pay, and we were to shift into a huge house which at the end stages of furnishing. During that period of time, my parents and I lived at my father's childhood home, a huge 3 bedroom apartment about the size of an entire corridor. The place had a huge balcony where I'd spend most of my evenings just sitting and staring at the people walking by. It was serene, because I loved to be left alone with my own thoughts.

One morning, I climbed onto my uncle's arm. He had been watching the news on TV. I don't remember what the reporter was saying, but I remember looking at that person and saying, "He is my brother."

My uncle laughed, thinking it was my imagination at play. I did not, because for some reason, he bore a striking resemblance to someone I knew. "What is his name?" my uncle asked, chuckling as he did.

"Abhijeet Dutta," I said, without thinking twice. "He is my brother from Bangladesh,"

My uncle laughed some more. His amusement confused me. He would tease me every other day during my stay there, shouting my name to call me whenever "Abhijeet Dutta" presented the morning news. I'd come running to see my long and lost brother on TV diligently every time. My eyes were glued to the TV as long as he was on screen.

As I grew older, changed schools, made new friends, girlfriends, had my heart broken, mended and broken yet again, I forgot about what I used to say. My uncle stopped teasing me after a while and started bombarding me with questions like, "What are your plans for post-graduation?", "Have you thought about giving writing a try? You have a wonderful imagination,". I answered them diligently and as shortly as I could, being a socially awkward 20 year old.

A few days ago, my mother had a few guests over to our house for a Bengali New Year (April 15) dinner. I had taken my food on a plate and was right in front of the TV watching an IPL (Indian Premier League- it's a cash rich cricket tournament) match between Chennai Super Kings and Kings XI Punjab. Let me chip in to say that I have sharp ears, given I listen to loud music daily.

I quietly lowered the volume on the TV and heard my mom whispering to the guests, a good 5 ft. away from me, "When mojojojo-369 was around 4 years old, he would constantly tell his uncle and me that his Bangladeshi brother would appear on TV instead of lurking around at the train tracks,"

Train tracks? I don't remember talking about train tracks.

My mother continued, "At first I thought it was his overactive imagination at play, but I decided to ask my mother-in-law. She did not find it funny. She told me that during the early 1940s, there was a man from Dhaka, Bangladesh, who would spend a lot of time near the train tracks until one day he committed suicide by jumping in front of a running train,"

The little tale managed to chill my bones, but I did not show it outwardly because I didn't want people to think I was eavesdropping on their conversation.

My mother did not stop. "She also told me," my mother said, referring to my paternal grandma, "that my father's side of the family was from Dhaka, Bangladesh, and there was a man named Abhijeet Dutta in our family who had committed suicide along the train tracks of Dhaka. He had left a younger brother who went looking for him in the train lines, but could not find him. The younger brother grew up missing his brother and ended his life in the same manner,"

That night one of my most burning questions was answered- why am I so afraid of train rides and sounds?

3

Hey everyone. Sorry for the delay in getting this last part up. I've really struggled to get it all down on paper... I'm sure you'll understand why after reading. I haven't been able to go back to work yet, but every day I'm feeling a little more like myself. For now, here is the final part of what happened to me.

Part 1

Part 2

When we left off, I had just found Jessie in the bath. Oscar had told me that I was supposed t talk the pills all along.

I looked at Oscar in shear horror. He casually stood up, turned on his heels, and walked out of the room. My vision was spinning in such a way that it truly felt like gravity was changing the direction of its pull. I clicked back into reality to find my head falling toward my shoulder. As I snapped it back upright in a glimpse of sobriety, the world spun back into place.

I looked back to the bath, and it was empty. No water, no Jessie, no heavy head in my arms, no ripped clothes. The shock of her being gone was almost as jarring as the shock of her being there in the first place. It had felt so real.

It took massive amounts of effort, but I heaved myself back to my feet. I didn’t know what I was trying to do at the time, but I knew I had to do something. When I came to the top of the stairs, I had no choice but to get onto my knees and lean against the wall as, like a toddler, I took each step one by one.

It felt like an eternity before I found myself with no more steps to clamber down. I stood up and began to head towards the lounge. In the bouts of inebriation, my mind would spin the world into things I have never seen the likes of before. The cracks between the large stone tiles on the floor turned into tiny brown snakes that wrapped around my wrists whenever I fell to the floor. They dug in with their fangs and dragged me to the ground, and I had to rip them from my hands and stand up before they could pull me down any further. I attacked them with such vigor that my hands began to bleed.

I turned the corner towards the lounge. Lost in the maze of the drug, and unable to distinguish what I was seeing from the real world, I saw something I will never forget.

Kurtis was laid out on the floor by the sofas, perfectly sliced into segments from head to toe. There was no blood. The top of his head had been cut away, and I remember looking into the cross section of his brain. His face was portioned into eyes and nose, and mouth and chin. He was crying, and he stared at me as he begged for me to help him.

I looked further down his body and found a still beating heart in one of the slices from his torso. As I looked even closer, blood still pumped around his body, as though the spaces between him where not there at all. His hands were separated from his wrists, but they were clenched into tight fists by his side. “Help me.” he pleaded. “Help me. Help me... Help me!”

He began to shout. “Help me!” he screamed, “Help me!”

Promising him I would do everything I could, I stood up and yelled at one of the cameras that had been constantly watching us. I’ve seen this footage back, and it chilled me to my core. I spend a couple of moments begging for help at the foot of the sofa. I’m in a ball, in the fetal position, and Kurtis is nowhere to be seen. Then I stand up, and throw my hands down toward the floor, where I believed Kurtis was sliced into partitions. “Can’t you see this?!” I call, through my tears. “You need to help us! He needs help!”

After my attempts of getting through to the people on the other side of the camera, I stumble outside. Jessie was there again, at the bottom of the pool. Her clothes were ripped and her hair was another beautiful veil above her face. Soon after, in a moment where I simply gave up, I allowed myself to fall into the water.

It was Adam that dragged me out, and saved my life. It was Annie that looked after us all as we vomited up the contents of our stomachs. It wasn’t more than ten minutes before the on-call doctor arrived at the villa, and it was minutes after that that the emergency services arrived.

But this isn’t a happy ending. When I woke up in this hospital six days ago, I woke up next to Kurtis, Lucy and Jules in the hospital beds next to me. Adam and Annie where there too, but they’d been discharged.

We were two people short.

Jessie was a truly funny, witty, and beautiful character. I knew her for only a little over a day. Oscar had been stalking her for months.

When the police searched his apartment, they found photos, tracking devices, broken bracelets from old festivals, clothing Jessie had worn, and much more. When they dug deeper, they’d seen him entering the same clubs as Jessie, watching from the shadows of the dance floor. When they searched her dorm-room, they’d found his DNA.

Quite when he’d begun the obsession was unclear, but when he’d found out she was going to interview for the show, he’d decided to make his final move. Ahisma, the company behind 40 Winks, are facing a lawsuit for the way everything was conducted, but it’s not believed much will come from it. They have opened a Just Giving page for Jessie, and all proceeds will go to a charity that offers protection from stalking. The producers were aware that the pills had been snuck in using the book, and it was intended to be part of the show, one of the many twists. They believed they were sleeping pills.

Oscar Norcott is facing trial for rape, and murder.

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288

I've been told this is the place to post mysterious stuff and get answers. Which is good, because answers are what I need right now.

So I live in one of those older suburban developments outside Toronto. You know, the ones they built up in the 1970's for the poorer people to move into? I've lived at that house for my whole life, and that includes my childhood. Growing up in the early 2000's with rather frugal parents, my childhood memories were of watching movies on VHS, playing hidden object games on Windows XP, and so on. Of the many movies I remember watching as a young boy, one of them was certainly not Frankie Pig Visits Niagara Falls.

I discovered the obscure film when I was cleaning out the basement. My parents had moved out some time ago and had left me the old house, and they wanted me to make one last check for anything they might want to bring to their new house. When I was searching under the house, I found a box in the corner of the room labelled "Kids' Movies". I opened it, and began to look at some of the VHS tapes. Most of them, I had fond memories of. VeggieTales, Peter Pan, The Berenstain Bears. Some I just found weird as a child, like those obscure christian films like Bible Man. Out of all these tapes, only one really stuck out to me as unfamiliar, the aforementioned Frankie Pig Visits Niagara Falls.

According to the back of the case, it was made in 1992 by a Canadian film studio called Funbox Entertainment. Odd. Most of the cassettes I had were from the late 90's, around the time my older brother was born. Intrigued, I read the synopsis.

"From the studio that brought you 'Frankie Pig's Big Adventure', Canada's Favourite Farm Friend is back in a feature-length adventure! When Farmer Casey lets the Farm Animals go on a vacation, trouble making Frankie Pig decides to jump ship in Niagara Falls, making friends and learning lessons as he tries to find Farmer Casey and the others!"

Alright, sounds innocent enough, I thought to myself. Fortunately I keep my VCR plugged into the TV incase I ever want to feel nostalgic, so I decided to find out what I was missing and loaded the cassette into the machine. So first it starts with the production company logo shining on the screen to that generic sort of synth music. Then another logo, for a different company that did the distribution, called Kidscape Distribution Canada.

After the logos, the film began with, surprisingly enough, a live action sequence. Here on the live-action, but obviously cheaply made farm, we are introduced to Farmer Casey, a friendly country girl who runs Fiddlesticks Farm. She loudly announces to the camera that she's taking the animals on a vacation, and you, the viewer, needs to help her wake them up. One by one, very slowly, we are introduced to the animated animals, Cassidy the Cow, Elizabeth the Horse, Larry the Chicken and Quincy the Duck. But where's Frankie? Given what we know from the synopsis, that pig's up to no good. So Farmer Casey once again gives us, the viewer, the all important duty of finding Frankie. And of course, we do. He's hiding in the mud, silly pig! Now, it's time for Farmer Casey to load the trailer and disembark on our vacation. We make a couple stops at some Canadian landmarks, where we then learn some basic information at each stop. Then, Frankie turns to the camera and tells us he's ditching the crew when we arrive to Niagara Falls because "That Farmer lady is just so boring". So we too join Frankie when he hops off the trailer when nobody's looking. And that's when everything goes to hell. Immediately, the friendly looking Frankie switches from a cute little pig with a hat to a real man with a distorted pig mask, and the camera quality was significantly distorted by. I paused the tape.

What the crap just happened, I asked myself. I stopped watching for a little bit to do some research. I needed to find out what the hell this film was about. So I googled it. "Frankie Pig Visits Niagara Falls". Nothing pops up. Nothing relevant anyways. Most of it was just some pictures of pigs on instagram or something, who happened to be named Frankie. So I decided to look up the production company listed, Funbox Entertainment. Immediately, I'm presented with their website. So I click on it. The website is so obviously dated, with crappy vector graphics and pixelated GIFs of various animated characters, and the company motto, "Creating Canada's Premier Animations since 1972". There's an option to see all the movies they've produced. And guess what? No mention of Frankie Pig Visits Niagara Falls. Or Frankie Pig at all, for that matter. The most recent film they're credited with is an animated kids film, their specialty, entitled Horace's Lonely Island, made in 1991. However, there was a number to call at the bottom, so I did. No response. So I decided that before I did any more research, I would finish the film.

I sat back on the couch and pressed play. This new, creepy version retained the original, childish voice of Frankie, except now it seemed like he was crying as he spoke, like he was forced to say the words.

“Now I’ve left those fools! It’s time to explore!” said Frankie. He was standing in a field, very obviously not a set. The camera turned to showcase the skyline of Niagara Falls, lit with night lights. The film quality became more like those creepy “found footage” films on youtube somewhere. The camera was behind Frankie, following him as we slowly walked towards the city. The film cuts to Clifton Hill. It’s practically midnight judging from the sky, and the lights of the strip are the only light. Frankie walks up the street, past several tour busses and tourists, none of whom seem to notice him. It’s when he turns onto a side street when I notice he’s holding a knife. A woman, dressed similarly to Farmer Casey, is standing at the end of the alley. When she turns around, her face is disfigured.

“Frankie, you naughty pig! I never thought I’d find you!” she screamed, eerily. Then, 4 men wearing animal masks appear behind her, and Frankie walks up to her.

“I knew I’d find you, Farmer lady.” The child on the other side of the microphone was bawling into tears. Suddenly, the screen went static, and the camera cuts to the film set at the farm. There, the 5 men are brutally stabbing the actress who was playing Farmer Casey, while a young boy, who I think is the voice actor who played Frankie, watched. I couldn’t believe what I was watching. Why would my parents even have this VHS? I decided to stop watching again.

What is the story of this strange film? There had to be some sort of explanation. So I did some more digging on the company, Funbox Entertainment. Turns out they declared bankruptcy in 1994, because they hadn’t made money since 1992, the same year Frankie Pig Visits Niagara Falls supposedly came out. Other than that, nothing was that out of the ordinary, just business stuff. Obviously, I was missing something. The opening credits mentioned another company, Kidscape Distribution Canada, the people who distributed the film to retailers. A search for them turned up their website, which showed they were still distributing films. A phone number was provided here, so I called. The following is a rough transcription of what took place.

ringing

KIDSCAPE EMPLOYEE: Hey, this is Chris from Kidscape Distribution of Greater Toronto, how may I help you today?

ME: Hey Chris, I’m [removed for privacy reasons]. I’d like to ask you some questions about one of the films you distributed?

CHRIS: Yeah sure, which one?

ME: This old VHS kids cartoon, I think it’s called “Frankie Pig Visits Niagara Falls”.

CHRIS: (quietly) Oh crap. (dials can be heard on his end) (speaks loudly again to me) I haven’t heard of that. If you could leave your name and information and I’ll get back to you when I can. Sorry.

ME: That’s alright. My name is [removed for privacy reasons], my phone number is -178-2131, and my address is 3910 *** Street, Etobicoke. Hope I can get some answers.

The information I left him was fake, by the way. The way he acted over the phone was way too suspicious. Soon after, I went back to the tape and watched further. After the stabbing scene on set was finished, the scene jumped back to Niagara Falls, where the animals are now carrying the other woman who was dressed as Farmer Casey. They walk her back onto Clifton Hill when police lights begin to flare. Again, the camera cuts to a scene of the Falls at daytime, and all seems normal until a hand appears in front of the camera, gives a thumbs up, and some men in the background repeat “Let’s move, move move!” Then, the body of the other woman is seen, being thrown into the falls. The camera is spun around to reveal more establishing shots of the city before a man starts singing children’s nursery rhymes. It then resumes to the animated children's film I thought I would be watching. Frankie begins to regret leaving the other animals, and begins to take action to find Farmer Casey and the gang, while also learning about the history and significance of the City of Niagara Falls. Then the credits began to roll, and this is when I got my notebook out. First and foremost, I needed to find out if the actor who portrayed Farmer Casey was ever murdered, the actor who portrayed Frankie was ever kidnapped, and if the director or someone at the studio ever got caught. But to my surprise, all the names were blurred out of the credits.

This is when I went to the police. I drove over to the station and handed in the VHS, and told them everything I knew. They told me that they would do everything they could to find out the meaning of this tape. So that’s it, you’re thinking. That’s all. No. That’s not all. Before I posted this, something came up on the news. Remember the fake address I gave the production company? Yesterday, there was a fire at that location. A fire the police suspect to be arson. I think I’m on to something here. If any of you have ever seen this movie, or know something about it, or have even worked on it, please tell me about it. I need to know everything about this film. Is it just my copy that’s like this? Do the events on film correlate to anything in Niagara Falls? Help me out.

23

I sat on the edge of the firm leather couch, resting my elbows on my knees. I took a deep breath and felt the muscles in my neck tighten as I began. 

“I’m sleeping in my bed when I hear a noise. I open my eyes just a bit and see my wife sleeping soundly next to me, the cat curled up between her legs. I close my eyes again, assuming it was my dumb neighbor. Not a minute later, I hear it again; this time it was louder. It’s almost like a tapping or banging noise. I sit straight up and turn behind me to look out of the window and that’ when I see him. An average-build man wearing a dark hoodie and baggy jeans. He had no face and is just….standing at the window. That’s when I usually wake up.” I leaned back, a bit relieved to get the dream I’d been mulling over for three weeks out of my head. Had it not been for my wife, I wouldn’t have met with a therapist at all. 

“Well, that’s not uncommon.” Dr. Graham said.

“Have you been stressed lately? Sometimes stress can manifest itself into nightmares.”

“I’m not going to lie, money has been tight. It’s a lot to deal with supporting my small family” I replied.

“You’re doing everything you can, James. You can’t put unrealistic expectations on yourself, you’re only human.”

“Doc, with all due respect, the pressure I put on myself is completely warranted. My wife hasn’t been able to work in years thanks to her back injury. “

“Have you given any thought to government assistance?”

“Nah, I’d rather not bother with it” I said, crossing my arms in front of me. 

”James, there are certain things you need to put your pride aside for. In my professional opinion, this is one of those things. However, I can’t make that ultimate decision for you.” The doctor paused and scribbled something down into his notebook. He pushed his glasses up on his nose and looked at me through them. 

“And what do you think these dreams mean?”

“In every dream I have of this man, I feel powerless. I feel like I can’t move and that I have no strength. It feels like even if something did happen my arms would be noodles and I might not even be able to stand on my own. Whether this man bursts through the front door, stands at the window, or he’s at the foot of our bed, I can’t protect my wife. That’s the fear that wakes me up.” These words seem to spit out of my mouth without me actually thinking about what I was saying. I looked up at Dr. Graham with a surprised look on my face. 

He scribbled more down into his notebook, checked his wristwatch and sighed. “Well, I’m sorry James. It seems like we’ll have to explore that facet of your mind in our next session. My next appointment will be here in 10 minutes.” I wanted to protest, but on the other hand, I didn’t want to keep talking about this. I could already feel a lump forming in my throat. I stood and shook the doctor’s hand. 

I barely remember the drive home. I was in such shock that a stranger had somehow penetrated my brain. More-so that he could see what was actually happening in there. 

When I got home, my wife greeted me at the door. The house smelled of brownies, the treat she always baked for me when I was having a rough day. Before I could get my shoes off, her arms were around my waist, squeezing tightly. 

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“To be honest, I don’t know” I replied. She looked up at me with the expression she sometimes has that makes me feel like a lost puppy. I know she doesn’t mean to be condescending when she looks at me that way, but when she does, it feels like I’m three inches tall. 

My wife is the only one who has ever truly loved me. Jumping from foster home to foster home when I was younger turned me into a calloused jackass, but she saw right through that. I don’t know what I’d do without her and it seems like even with her I don’t know what to do. 

Since her injury, times have been tough. We’ve managed to stick together through it all and I’m so grateful for that, I only wish I knew how to repay her.


Getting ready for bed typically causes my chest to tighten. Lying there in the silence and the dark leaves room for my mind to wander. I know what will eventually come and being restless all night makes me lose sleep which, in turn, gives me more bad dreams. 

Tonight, however, I feel more nervous than ever. Since my appointment this morning, I’ve been thinking about what the therapist said. How he was able to see me for what I was and not the hardened angry guy all of my friends know. It amazes me that I’m that transparent. That someone other than my wife can see that part of me; it made me uncomfortable. All I keep thinking about is the fact that this faceless man is somehow the manifestation of my stress and feeling like I can’t keep my family afloat.

With some hesitation, I climb into bed, turn off the TV, and let the rhythmic sound of my wife turning the pages of her book lull me to sleep.

Before I know it, the knocking sound reverberates through my head and my eyes open wide. I don’t move, but the room feels off. It feels real. My wife is still awake, her knees curled to her chest and her eyes widened at the pages she’s holding inches from her face.

“Are you okay? You were shaking the whole bed” she says, breaking her concentration to turn and look at me. 

“Yeah, I’m okay. Can you grab me some water?”

“Sure,” she says. She leans over to grab the cup on my side table, kissing me on the cheek as she does so. 

I rest my head on my pillow, my eyes still wide open, my entire body awake and alert. I’ve left some kind of puddle on my pillow; whether it’s sweat or drool, I can’t tell. In the time it takes me to blink, the faceless man appears at the foot of our bed. I’m completely paralyzed.  My wife walks back into the room and stops short, staring at him. The sound the glass made shattering on the floor diverted the faceless man’s attention away from me and onto her. 

I tried to move, but my elbows keep buckling and my legs go numb. The faceless man cocks his head to one side and strides over to my wife. It took every ounce of energy I had to sit up. 

He wasn’t able to make it three steps before she grabbed a large shard of glass and forcefully stabbed it into his thigh. All I could do was watch, struggling to stay upright and keep my neck from bending. He doubled over in pain, silently screaming and writhing before her. His baggy blue jeans were weighed down with the ounces of blood he was losing each second. My wife kicked him over and he fell hard on the floor. I heard something snap and he stopped moving. 

My wife ran over to the bed, blood spattered across her white nightgown. She took me in her arms and all at once, my strength came back. I held my head up, but I couldn’t hug her back.  I had never felt more useless, more powerless over anything before. My greatest nightmare had just been obliterated by the only person I cared enough to protect from it. 

I laid back down as my wife changed into new pajamas. My eyes closed and I began to cry. This was one of the worst nightmares I’d ever had. The only hope I had to look forward to was waking up from this and trying to analyze it with my therapist next week. 

Only I didn’t wake up.

As the sun shone on my face the next morning, I realized I had been awake all night. My pillow was sopping wet. My wife was sleeping soundly next to me in a dark oversized t-shirt, and there was a wide, dark blood stain on the floor beside our bed.

8

"For gods sake Anna, are you cleaning in there or just messing around?! I don't want to have to ask again!"

My mum has just started chewing me out about not cleaning the bath. It's become a frequent argument in this house, almost every single day there comes a shout from down the hall. 'Clean the bath' or 'why don't you wipe down after yourself?'; it's become part of the morning ritual. The thing is, I always wipe down after a shower. I stand in the bathroom bundled in a towel; turn off the the shower and grab a new towel from the rack, to start the aggravating process of wiping away all of the water droplets from the ceramic tiles. It takes even longer these days as we had a new bath and shower fitted. Instead of a plastic shower curtain, we now have a big glass door hanging from the wall. I wipe it clean, and dry, every day so that there are no water marks or gross smears left behind. Then, the damp towel gets hung up to dry. Simple enough. After this morning, after what I've seen, I'll never clean that room again. Hell, I'll never use this bath for as long as I live.

I suppose I should take a step back, and start from the beginning. A handful of months ago, our landlord paid us a visit to check out the place. He is a fairly absent guy, but he makes a habit of stopping over once a year to make sure his property is still standing. He lets us know when he is coming over and all in all he is a pretty decent landlord. We pay our rent, he sorts out any issues we have and that's pretty much it. We've lived here eight years now, and it's a pretty nice setup for me and my mum. Our house has been standing for 60 years, but it's in good shape. Before all my problems started; we had noticed that our bath had been looking pretty dull, the enamel was worn and chipped. Our shower sputtered and the plastic coating was faded. Some of the white tiles on the wall were loose or cracked. I guess the bathroom tiles were pretty old at the time anyway, I mean, the cracks had been there since we moved in. Generally, you looked at the bathroom and just thought that it needed a nice coat of paint and some TLC.  So when the landlord announced his annual visit, my mum made a plan to ask about getting a new shower and a can of paint. She didn't want to push her luck, so she was going to offer to do the painting herself. That's the kind of person that my mum is. We were both totally shocked when the landlord announced his plans to get a whole new bathroom refurbishment for us, a new bath, new tiles, new shower... Hell, he even said we could choose the colour scheme.

Fast forward two months later, the workman are all gone and we have this awesome, shiny new bathroom. My mum picked out this beautiful Aqua colour scheme, white tiles and a crisp white sink unit. The first time I used the shower, I felt like I was in a 5 star hotel. The water came out with no false starts, no ridiculous temperature issues and best of all, there was a working extractor fan! I was pleased to finally not have to deal with damp towels. It was nice to have a new bath too, it was shiny and new. With big clawed feet, like I'd seen in posh magazines. I thought at the time that it was an odd choice, as I thought that would have been an expensive option. But what did I know about baths?  For a few days, everything was perfect. Until my mum started yelling at me, "you're leaving hair in the bath!". At first, I simply thought that I was being forgetful. I'd walk back along the hall, pick up a towel and wipe down the bath. I'd polish the silver taps, clean the smears from the glass and pick out the odd strands of hair laying the the base of the bath.

I assumed that the hair was mine, as it was long and black. Just like my hair was, and my mums. So I mean, it could have been her not bothering to clean up after herself. After a few more days, that's what I began to think. I was certain that I'd already cleaned up. I was 100% certain of it. I'd wiped this surface, I'd cleaned that wall. Where was this water coming from? Why was there so much damn hair I'm this bath all the time?

After a couple more days, things took a turn for the worse. The long black hairs started to multiply, once there was a hair or two at a time. Then 3, then 4 and sooner than I realised, I'd be finding small knots of hair. Wet, slimy hair. It honestly looked more like it was from a dirty lake, than from my clean bath. I didn't know what to do! My mum never seemed to see it, and it couldn't be from anywhere else. So I ended up just doggedly cleaning it up, time after time. Before long I'd be trying to pick up clumps of hair, stringy back webs of hair.

Black, brown, blonde and grey. Wait, blonde hair? Grey hair? I lost it at at that point. The hair was turning up in all kinds of colours and shades. My mum and I definitely both had black hair, so I was at my wits end. Cleaning up hair was a frustrating task as it was, have you ever tried to pick wet hair out of a bath? It's a nightmare sometimes, especially when you're trying to hold up a towel with one hand already. I was convinced that there was an issue in the pipes, the builders must have fucked up the pipes. I was sure it was something like that, what else could it have been?

This morning was the final straw, I was standing in the shower. I'd just finished washing my hair, and I found myself looking down at my feet. I was watching the shampoo remnants wash away down the plug hole, between my toes. When I saw a hair, waving in the current of the water. I thought nothing of it, other than annoyance at its presence. Showering had become nothing short of a chore, ever since the hair had started appearing. I hated it.  I was about the resume my shower when something made me look back down. Something was wrong, but I didn't know what. A stray fleck of soap dripped down from my skin and swirled away into the blackness of the plug hole. That's when I realised, the single strand of awful hair I was looking at wasn't washing away. It was writhing in the water, coming out of the plug hole. It was fighting the current, not moving with it.

I was perplexed, but still, I finished my shower as usual. Turned off the current and stepped out of the bath. I shrouded myself in a towel, and bent closer down for a look. The hair was no longer moving, and I told myself that it had just been a trick of the light. Or something like that. I reached into the base of the bath to pluck the hair from its watery resting place, but it slipped from my fingers. It slither further into the plug hole, hanging across the silver divider between the bath and the dark pipes below. I grabbed the hair with two fingers and I began to pull, the hair was longer than any I'd ever seen. It kept coming, more and more, being pulled out into the light of my bathroom. The hair was now pulling more hairs out too, strand after strand. I was pulling up clumps of dirty, matted hair, all wrapped in sludge from the depths of the pipes underneath my bath. There was a stench building, growing in strength as the piles of hair in my bath grew. It reeked, like rubbish and decay. I gagged, but I was determined. I was almost in a frenzy to get the hair out of my bath, out of the plug and free from my pipes. I was like an animal, in my mind I thought that this must be the cause of my problem. Some age of clump of hair, stuck in the labyrinth of pipes buried in the ground.  I pulled and pulled, suddenly the hair went tight. The hair was stuck, I felt like I was so close now, this must be the final clump. I climbed into the bath and kneeled down, slipping over the disgusting piles of hair. My knees slick with water and ooze. My left hand was clutching the hair, my right was holding onto the bath rim in a bid to stable myself. I tried to pull on the strands, to free the clump. I still had to be careful not to snap the hairs or drop them. I couldn't risk losing them forever back down the pipe.  The hair wouldn't loosen, no amount of pulling or tugging was inching this mess of hair closer to freedom. I decided to try and get a look inside the plug, the light was on already so I leaned forward. I was trying to lean forward, I couldn't get a good angle to see down there and I was getting more and more annoyed with each passing moment.

My hair fell past my eyes, but before I could brush it back from my face, it was snagged by the plug. No, it was grabbed by something in the plug hole. I panicked, I could feel my hair being pulled down into the inky black below, I tried to stand up in a panic. But I couldn't. My towel slipped from around me, and I was stuck, naked in a half crouch. Before my mind could clear enough to think about my next move, my hair was yanked incredibly hard. I was pulled forward so hard, that I slipped and smashed face first into the faucet. I let out a cry of pain, my cheek was in agony. My hair was pulled again, and my face was once again rammed into the taps. I felt a crunch, and my face exploded into white hot pain. I tried desperately to pull away, my hands slick with water. I felt my hair lose tension, as whatever was pulling on me relaxed its grip. I hastily crawled backwards on my hands and knees, my eyes blurred with tears. I gripped my hair in both hands, trying to free myself from this nightmare. But suddenly I was pulled again, there was an inhuman strength in the pull and I flew back towards the taps. I saw a final glint of silver, before the faucet hit. My mouth struck the taps, my lip split as my teeth were smashed from their roots. I screamed through a mouthful of blood and loose teeth.  They plunked down onto the ceramic underneath my swollen face, like pennies dropping into a well.  My hair finally ripped free from my scalp, with an agonising tear. I saw skin, and blood fly past my field of vision and plop down near the plug. I watched in muted amazement as the strands slithered off down into the darkness. What the fuck just happened? I knelt in disbelief, crying in pain and dripping blood from my ruined face.

I could hear my mum walking up the stairs, shouting something. I couldn't focus, I could barely see. I blinked hard, trying to clear my vision. Blood was swirling near the plug, when I saw something that sent me reeling. I stumbled, trying to stand up and grab a towel. I panicked, screaming in fear and pain. I could hear my mum at that point, outside the door, shouting about cleaning up. I haven't moved yet, I'm still sitting with my back pressed up against the door. I'm watching the plug; where a single, thin and pale finger has emerged to reach my spilt blood.

Now I know that the hair wasn't mine.

3

A small room. Darkness. Then…

I see red light. The sound of static. With a booming undercurrent, the static grows. Louder, building toward some unreachable climax, higher, higher, enveloping my mind. Shivers down my spine. I want to stop.

But I lie still. I wait.

My sister, Jan, told me about the Ganzfeld Effect when I was 17. She was a psych undergrad at UC Berkeley. Like usual, we were doing some mundane activity (in this case, playing ping pong), and, like usual, she took it as an opportunity to ramble about her studies.

“You can hear things. See things. Things that aren’t there. All you need is your computer, some headphones, and a ping pong ball,” she said. “And free time, which I know you’ve got plenty of.”

It was true. Ever since the accident, I couldn’t work, couldn’t play sports, couldn’t do much of anything. My right leg was mangled to the point where it hurt to walk. My left arm had severe nerve damage. I had a boring life, but the hope was that I’d just bide my time until I got healthier.

I never did.

Part of me thought I deserved it. The accident happened when I was training to get my driver’s license and I didn’t have much experience with driving at night. Naturally, my mom had volunteered to coach me from the passenger seat. She was caring, and gentle, and kind, and exactly the kind of person I felt comfortable around in this sort of situation. We were driving through the forest on a winding road, and I was getting used to the idea of tracking the beams of the headlights as the road curved back and forth. The cones of white light revealed little details of the forest beyond the road: a maze of trees, extending into the depths of nothingness.

I don’t really remember what caused it. I know the tires screeched as the car veered off the road. I know we tumbled end over end, a deafening crunch as the roof dented inward, and…

When I woke up, there was glass everywhere. As I pushed away from the airbag in my face, I could feel the grinding of glass shards between me and the seat, stabbing me. I reached to my face to discover blood dripping from my forehead. Then I looked to my right: the passenger seat was now empty. I panicked, falling out of the car, completely oblivious to my injuries. I stumbled to the front of the car, hyperventilating, my eyes following the path of the headlights to see them shining upon –

I passed out.

The first time I tried the Ganzfeld Effect, I didn’t know what I was looking for. Sure, I was bored, but why satisfy my boredom with something that seemed designed to unsettle me? It was a strange obsession I only came to understand today.

Anyway, it works like this:

Step 1: Sit in a comfortable chair in front of your computer. Wear headphones.

Step 2: Turn off the lights.

Step 3: Cut a ping-pong ball in half. Tape each half over your eyes.

Step 4: Play the video. Wait.

The idea behind the Effect is that the human brain doesn’t know how to handle extreme cases of sensory deprivation. The bright red light from the video, blurred through the ping-pong ball; the droning static, penetrating your every thought… after a while, your brain will force you to hallucinate sounds and visuals in the room.

As I sat down preparing to press play for the first time, my mind wandered to thoughts of what I might see or hear. I gravitated toward fear. Would I experience some cliché horror trope? Demonic whispers, evil clowns, bloodthirsty monsters? I was scared of spiders; would spiders swarm in front of me, crawling across the red screen -- or worse, atop my eyes?

After clicking play for that very first time, a few uneventful minutes went by. Then, something happened: I thought I saw the light in my room turn back on. Then off. On. Off. I leaped out of my chair, ripped the ping-pong ball lenses off my eyes, instinctively flailed my body toward the light switch, and crashed to the floor. As I caught my breath, looking around the room, I realized that the light in my room was now back on. Had I really turned the light on amongst my flailing panic? I didn’t think I had actually reached the switch. But I must have.

The car’s headlights cast upon something red. As I re-awoke outside the car, the red was all I could see. There was a ringing in my ears. I pulled my head back to find…

My mom. Somehow, the crash had ejected her through the windshield. The red I saw was the fabric of her blouse, stained even redder by her blood. Her lifeless eyes were wide open, vacant, staring at me. Her body contorted from the crash, limbs wrapped around a tree trunk.

I blamed myself for years. I was haunted. But shouldn’t I be? I loved her so much, and she was the kindest soul I ever knew. And she was gone, and I was the driver. But it wasn’t fair to live in guilt forever. It was an accident. I just tried my best to forget.

I regretted trying the Ganzfeld Effect that first time. But it wasn’t long before I did it again. And again. Years went by and life moved on without me: my friends grew up, my sister stopped visiting, my dad lost his job. But all that didn’t matter, because I was stuck in my dark room, alone, desperate. The red light, the static… I heard empty voices, speaking in tongues... I saw figures, barely more than shadows, silently walking through my room... I tested the limits of what I could handle. The red light starched my eyes, and the static bled my ears, and I was always left wanting more. I was searching for something I couldn’t find, because I hadn’t realized what I needed to see.

But it’s so obvious now! This time, I know what I need to see.

Yes, I sit in a comfy chair at my computer.

Yes, I wear headphones.

Yes, I have the lights off with a ping-pong ball cut in half over my eyes.

And yes, the video plays.

I lie still. I wait.

Minutes pass…

The static peppers my ears, but I’ve grown accustomed to it now. The red light glows, and it feels so familiar. Friendly, even. Is that even possible? No, no. The thought concerns me. But then…

The red light is nothing but the red blouse she wears. I can feel her presence. It’s not just my imagination. I know it’s not.

The red shifts position, stepping back. I see more than just red in front of me. It’s her. All of her: her red blouse, and her caring eyes, and her sad smile. She looks at me, holding her smile on me, waiting.

I’m not sure what to say. I’ve wanted this moment for so long, and now that it’s here I’m too stunned to react. So, I say nothing.

I’m trembling.

Finally, she acknowledges my silence, her smile slowly fading.

She looks at me, and she cries, and she nods her head and says to me: “It was your fault.”

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NoSleep is a community for original horror stories. Stories may be true or not (but they are usually not). While most of our stories are fiction, we treat all stories like true, real life experiences, because the best scares come when you are immersed in the story. If it helps, don’t think of it as reading a story. Think of it as witnessing an event.

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