Delivery

I saw him for the first time in the freezer. It was late on a Friday night, really Saturday morning, and I was moving food to the cooler for the morning crew. I pulled a box from the shelf and turned, and there, right there by the door, he was standing. A dark shape — no, a dim shape, fuzzy in those few seconds of vision, my eyes not quite certain if they were focusing on the freezer door or this thing in front of it. Pale arms outstretched and raised towards me. Hollow eyes black against a pallid face, and a mouth that opened as if to speak. I heard the click and slide of tongue on teeth, underneath the low wheeze of the freezer fan. And he was gone.

I stood staring at the door for a moment, heavy box of frozen food in my hands. I wasn’t sure what I had seen, or if I had seen anything. My heart rate was up, and I was sweating lightly, even in the chill. I blinked a few times, and looked around, even though I knew the freezer was too small to contain another person. I pushed open the door, and looked outside. Nothing. I cautiously opened the cooler door. Still nothing. I put the frozen box inside, and shut the door.

I had been working at a chain pizza place for a year or so. I had a car, a valid license, and a good memory for roads, and I was always available to work, so the manager soon let me pick my own shifts. I would usually work open to close on the weekends. I made great money, but had no social life. There was not a lot of people willing to hang out after two in the morning, so my friend circle diminished to include only the manager of the pizza shack and a few other drivers and cooks who worked the late weekend shifts.

I woke up thinking about him the next morning, thinking about those black eyes. I shook off the thought, showered, and went to work. The days passed quickly, and as memories of circumstances that don’t fit in with normal experience often do, the memory faded.

A few weeks later, we were in Saturday night rush, doing two hundred pies an hour, my car packed with pizzas destined for games and parties. It slowed down by about nine, so I started cleaning the front. The phone rang at about nine fifteen, and I answered it. “Donkeynose Pizza, will this be for delivery or carryout?”

“Delivery.” Great. A kid.

“What’s your address and telephone number?”

“217 Maple Street. 593-3309.”

“And your order?”

“I want a large pizza with pepperoni and onions.”

“Ok, that’ll be $10.50. It’ll be out in half an hour.”

I hung up the phone, and turned to Susan, the manager. “The Maple Street Kid again.”

“Do you want me to make the pizza?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “I like pepperoni and onions.” Susan laughed. “Really, go ahead and make it. I’m gonna deliver it this time, because you know he’s just going to call until we yell at him or until I drive out there.”

The Maple Street Kid was one of a few regular pranksters that we dealt with. He was fairly consistent, always ordering a large pizza of some sort, and always ordering it to the same address, 217 Maple Street. The problem was, there was no 217 Maple Street. It was a short-block street, amongst a forest of other tree-named streets, close to the downtown section of our small town. The house numbers started on the right-hand side at 201, then 211, then jumped to 221, and ended at 231. There was nothing between 211 and 221 save for 211’s driveway. I knew that because every newby delivery driver got sent out to 217 at the first opportunity. The owners of 211 and 221 (and 220, across the street) were quite used to lost delivery drivers tromping through their back yards, pizza hotbag in hand, looking for 217.

Our theory was that the Kid lived in one of the houses on or near Maple Street, and would peek out his window to watch the victims of his prank. All of the delivery drivers had tried desperately to catch a glimpse of a twitching curtain or hear a kid laughing behind some shrubbery, but as far as I knew, nobody had ever caught him.

Fifteen minutes after the call, I was on the road, pizza in the hotbag, new KMFDM cassette blaring from the tape player, windows rolled down to let in the moist summer night air. I crossed the train tracks, and turned onto Maple Street. Heat lightning flashed in the distance, dim and purple, with a low rumble that could have been thunder, or a train, or a distant jet. I slowed down to a crawl at the beginning of Maple Street, looking at each window for the pale peeking face of the Kid. I passed 201, then 211, and slammed on my brakes.

There, just past 211, was 217 Maple Street.

I stared for a moment. Bad industrial music blasted out of the tinny second-hand speakers I’d installed into the doors of my ’81 Datsun, echoing hollowly off the sides of the houses along Maple Street. 211 Maple Street looked the same, a 1950s brick bungalow with a gravel driveway on the side. 221 Maple Street also matched memory, another 50s bungalow, with ugly green shutters and terrible lawn art. Between the two, where there should have been nothing asides from a narrow old fence, stood a narrow white farmhouse. It looked bland and boring, with black shutters, a green tin roof, and a porch swing. Painted on the curb, and in matching numbers on a support column, were the numbers ‘217’. The porch light was on.

I jerked the parking brake and got out of my car, carrying the pizza with me. I wasn’t terribly concerned for my own safety; I was wearing heavy steel-toed Doc Martens and packing a 9mm in my belt pouch (totally against Donkeynose Pizza’s regs, of course, but after a coworker got jumped in Oakhurst Estates I was taking no chances). I stomped my big clunky boots down the short concrete walkway, and up the steps. Rang the bell. Heard footsteps on hardwood floors, and the dry clicking of fingers against a chain lock.

The door swung open, and a kid stepped out into the porchlight. I flipped open the hotbag, and pulled out the pizza. “That’ll be $10.50,” I said. He thrust a wad of bills at me. I took them, counted thirteen dollars. Made as if to hand him back two dollars.

“No, keep it. Thanks,” the kid said. He took the pizza, turned around and went back inside, pulling the door shut. I heard the bolt click and the scrabbling sound of the chain lock.

I clomped back to my car, and looked back at the house. It was still there. The porch light flicked off. I put the car in gear, and drove to the end of the road. Sighed. Turned around, and drove back to 217. It was still there, porchlight off, old white paint green in the glow of the streetlights. I sighed again, and drove back to the store.

“You’re shitting me,” Susan said, as she cleaned the counter with a cloth. Susan was about forty, stocky, and married to her job. Everyone thought she was a lesbian until that vampire movie came out, the one with Brad Pitt, then all she would do was talk about how hot Brad Pitt was, and the various things she would do to him if she ever got him alone. It was not the best mental picture, and we ‘assisted’ her by plastering her office with little Brad heads.

“I swear to God I’m not!” I said. “Seriously, I really wanted that pizza! Now I’m hungry!” I washed my hands and began making my own pizza.

“So you actually delivered a pizza to 217 Maple Street. A house that doesn’t exist, and hasn’t ever existed. I’ve driven out there a dozen times trying to catch that little fucker, and I know damn good and well that there’s no 217. The numbers skip right over it. Every street has skipped numbers — there’s a lot more numbers than houses in this town,” Susan said. She was clearly expecting some elaborate prank on my part, like the time when someone put the condom over her tailpipe, or the the time when someone plastic-wrapped her truck. If she didn’t see it, I didn’t do it.

“Fine, I’ll watch the store and you go look for yourself,” I said.

“No, I’m not going anywhere. For one, I can’t leave the store. For two, I’m sure you’re lying, and you’re waiting for me to leave so you can do something horrible to my office, or something.”

“Let’s go over there after we close. I’ll drive. I’ll bet you ten bucks it’s there,” I said. That seemed to appease her.

“Okay, what did The Kid look like?” she asked.

“That’s funny, I didn’t really think about it. He looked normal. A little fat. He was wearing a striped shirt. Dark hair,” I said. “He looked like a normal kid. The house looked normal too.” It wasn’t until later, washing dishes in the back, that I realized why The Kid had looked so normal, so familiar to me. I had seen him before, in our freezer.

We got busy again, as usual, around 11 P.M. I took quite a few runs, some all the way out to Red Apple, and didn’t get back to the store until nearly 1:30 A.M. Susan sent the other driver home, and all I had left was to wash a few dishes and wait for her to finish her count the register totals. I was arm-deep in soapy water, scouring a stubborn pan, when I heard something SLAM! behind me. I spun around, only to see Susan standing there, grinning.

“Time to lose ten bucks, kiddo,” she said. “You’re opening tomorrow, so leave that pan for the morning. Let’s go!”

We left in Susan’s truck. She had a thing about riding with her drivers, saying that she “knew how we drove.” The truck bounced across the railroad tracks, then lurched onto Maple Street. The wind had picked up, and the first fat drops of rain began to splat against the truck’s windows. The heat lightning I had seen earlier was turning into a full summer storm. Susan stopped the truck in the middle of the street.

“No. Fucking. Way.”

Lightning flashed in the distance, illuminating the plain pallid face of 217 Maple Street. Susan’s mouth hung open. A hand stole up to pull at one of the curls of her hair, mousy-brown going prematurely grey. She did this when she was stressed, or worried. “This isn’t possible.”

She turned to me. “Mark, I’ve lived in this town my whole life. I know it like the back of my hand. Give me any address in our delivery area, any one, and I can tell you the color of the shutters, what they normally order, and if they tip. This house can’t be here. There’s no goddamn 217 Maple Street.”

“Right, now pay up,” I said, sticking my hand out. She swatted it away.

“Later. I have to see this place up close. This is bullshit.” She pulled the truck up to the curb and parked it. She got out of the truck, and began walking down the concrete walkway to the house.

“Susan!” I hissed. “Susan! Stop it! It’s two in the morning. They’re gonna call the cops!” She waved her hand at me, motioning for me to shut up. I got out of the truck as she climbed the stairs of the porch.

“The door is wide open,” Susan said.

“Don’t go in there!” I yelled, as she stepped across the threshold into the house. The door, as I knew it would, as I knew it would for days and weeks and certainly from the moment I saw the house that night, slammed shut behind her.

“Fuck,” I said. I ran up the stairs onto the porch, and tried opening the door. No joy. It was stuck fast, and the knob was so cold it burned. I released it, hissing, cradling my stinging palm. I ran down off the porch, and around the back of the house. The rain was coming down harder, the wind whipping it into stinging missiles against my skin. I hauled open a wooden gate and ran into the back yard. It was pitch black, lit sporadically by the flashes of lightning. I climbed a short wooden staircase to the back door, and hammered on it.

“Susan! Can you hear me? Come back out of there!” I beat the door with my fist, only stopping when a sharp spike of pain made me pull back. I had cracked a small pane of glass in the door. My blood looked black in the dim light. I kicked the door out of frustration, then ran back down the stairs. I shoved the gate open, and skidded to a stop. There, in front of me, was the small dark figure of The Maple Street Kid.

“Why did you come back here?” he asked, walking towards me. “What do you want?” In the green streetlight, his face looked gray, eyes hollow pits and mouth full of blackness. Thunder rumbled, and I heard a thin scream come from inside the house.

“Susan!” I yelled, turning towards the house.

The Kid looked at the house, then back to me, features twisting into anguished horror. “Oh no. Oh no oh no. You let someone go inside?” He plunged his hands into his black hair, wringing and pulling it. “Oh no. You weren’t supposed to be here. You weren’t supposed to come back!” His figure shifted, shimmered in the flashbulb lighting of the storm. “You need to get out of here! You need to run NOW!” With that last shout, his mouth opened hugely, showing nothing inside – no teeth, no tongue, only a blackened pit dark as pitch and yawning wide as the night.

I ran. I ran without a thought in my mind until I stumbled and nearly fell over the railroad tracks. I stood there for a moment, in the sheeting torrents of freezing rain, and then I ran back to Maple Street.

Susan’s truck was gone. I could see where it should have been from the corner, and it was clearly missing. As was 217 Maple Street.

I walked the two miles back to the store, and climbed into my car. I changed out of my sodden uniform into my regular clothes, and dried off with a towel I kept in the car to manually de-fog the windows. I drove back to Maple Street, just in case.

217 was still missing. Between 211 and 221 stood only a weatherbeaten wooden fence. There was no sign of Susan, or her truck. Suddenly, I was immensely tired, and needed to go home.

The cops didn’t question my story very much. I told them we closed the store as usual, and we parted ways. The owner, Brian, was more suspicious. Normally managers made night deposits after they closed, and they had a driver follow them to the bank. Susan hadn’t made hers, and I couldn’t explain why she hadn’t asked me to follow her to the bank that night. Everyone — and Brian, in particular — assumed that Susan had stolen the night deposit and ran. Nobody questioned why someone as dedicated as Susan would do something like that. Nobody questioned where someone would go with a measly five thousand dollars, much less why. Brian took over Susan’s shifts for a while, until he promoted one of the shift leads to her position.

Susan’s family posted a reward for any information about her whereabouts, but nobody came forth. I knew what happened, but I couldn’t tell anyone. I knew that, at best, they would think I was crazy, or on drugs. At worst, the cops would decide it was a homicide, with me as suspect number one.

Besides, I knew where she was. A month after Susan disappeared, on a Saturday night, one of the new kids took an order for delivery. It was 217 Maple Street, for a ham and pineapple pizza. Susan’s favorite.

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The Mug

“Whose mug is this?” Becky asked. 

“No idea,” I replied. “What are you talking about?”

“This mug right here,” she said. I leaned back in my chair and craned my neck to see. 

“I’m trying to watch this show,” I said. “What’s the big deal about a mug?”

“I’ve never seen it before,” Becky said, getting that tone in her voice like I was about to be in trouble.

“So what? You collect cups and mugs like most people … er, don’t,” I said. If I was going to be in trouble, I might as well go for broke.

“Well, look at it. It’s weird. And I’ve never seen it before.”

Becky shoved the mug at me, as if the mug was some particularly grievous offense for which I was to blame. The mug was tall, for a mug, made of a cracked and glazed ceramic that had yellowed with age. It looked like any of a dozen that we had in our over-stuffed cabinets, received as white-elephant Christmas gifts, on sale at Tuesday Morning, or otherwise somehow ending up being filled with coffee or tea or hot chocolate. 

“It’s a mug. I fail to recognize its relevance to the TV show that it is currently interrupting,” I said. 

Becky made a clicking sound with her tongue, and the I-Want crease between her eyebrows deepened. I was treading on thin ice. “Look at the painting on the side, jerk.”

I sighed and put on my reading glasses. The scene on the side of the mug was a Norman Rockwell-style winter scene with capering animals and laughing children. “It’s a Christmas mug,” I said, and took my glasses off.

“That’s not Christmas,” Becky said, hands on her hips. “I know Christmas, and that’s not it. Look closer, right there in the middle.” She pointed at the central figure in the painting. I put my glasses on again, and looked. The middle of the painting showed what appeared to be a winged man standing in front of an oval pool of water, attended to by several smaller figures wearing red cloaks. This scene was bordered with elaborately decorated Christmas trees, garlanded and ornamented. A laughing child was standing by each tree. I then saw that what I had mistaken for animals were in fact elves or fairies, playing amongst running children. 

“Ok, you’re right. That’s pretty weird. It’s still a Christmas mug. Those are Christmas trees, and that’s an Angel. The Christmas Angel,” I said. 

“Let me see it,” Becky said. She had found a magnifying glass from somewhere. She peered into the magnifying glass at the mug. “I don’t think those children are having a good time,” she said. “Look here, at this tree. I thought this kid was wearing a belt, or funny clothes, but it looks like it goes around the trunk of the tree. Like the kid is tied to the tree.”

“You’re pranking me. You got this off the Internet, didn’t you?”

Becky, holding the mug, opened her mouth to say something. Closed it. Put the mug down on the table. “No, Richard. I swear to you, I have never seen that thing in my life. It’s not a joke.” She turned and walked away, towards our bedroom, with the tight, clenched movements that loudly indicated that she was no longer speaking to me.

I picked up the mug from the table, and looked at it. She was right, it was pretty creepy. The little animal-elf creatures’ painted eyes were narrow in a way that suggested slyness, or malice, and the children’s expressions of laughter and glee could just as easily have been grimaces of fear and shrieks of pain. I shuddered, and realized I had been staring at the mug for several minutes. I stepped on the pedal of the waste bin, and dropped the mug into the trash with a satisfying clunk. “And that’s that,” I said, and went to my bedroom, hoping to grovel my way back into my wife’s good graces.

The mug was back in the cabinet the next morning. “Did you fish this out of the trash?” I asked, as Becky stirred her eggs. 

“What?” she asked.

“That damned mug from last night.”

“No, I didn’t know you threw it away. Maybe one of the kids found it.”

I turned to the table, and cocked an eyebrow. The kids were busy eating cereal and fighting amongst themselves. Brent, the oldest, said, “Nope. Not me.” 

Richie, my younger son, said, “Eew! Why would anyone take stuff out of the trash? That’s gross!” 

Hanna, my daughter, began to chant “Gross!” at the top of her four-year-old lungs. Richie decided to copy her, and Brent tried to police them both. 

“Maybe I’m mistaken,” I said. “It’s trash now, so I expect none of you to go rooting through the garbage for it.” I took the mug out of the cabinet, and held it for a moment. The painting on the side seemed different, somehow. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was different. I stared at the central figure, hands raised as it stood near a dark pool, wings rising high above its head. I heard something then, a whisper, some word whose shape I could not quite discern. Something touched my arm then, and I jumped, defensively jabbing my elbow backwards. I heard a thin shriek from behind me. I turned to see Richie, clutching his nose, blood pouring down his face and shirt. 

“Oh, crap, Richie! Are you ok?” I asked. Richie stood there in shock. “I swear I had no idea you were back there, honey. Let me take a look at it.” 

Becky declared nothing was broken, but allowed Richie to skip school for the day, much to Brent’s dismay. Richie over-acted his injury, insisting that his mother bandage his head to the point that he looked like a mummy from an old movie. Hanna found this to be amazingly funny, and took every opportunity to try to insert tiny dolls into the bandages. 

Our house is several miles from town, nestled in a sheltering cove. The property is relatively large, and mostly covered in pine and spruce. Becky and I chose the location for its remoteness and privacy, but we knew the kids missed not having any neighboring children for playmates, and in ten years we have had a total of two trick-or-treaters. 

On the drive to work, I kept thinking about that damned mug. The large, straight trunks of age-old pine trees flickered past as I made my way down the dirt county road that we think of as our driveway, because ours was the only residence along it. I found myself going over details from the painting on the side, and in particular the  little creatures with their red capes and hats and their sly expressions.  In the flickers of dawn light streaming between the darkened pine trunks along the road, I imagined I could see red cloaks slipping behind trees just before I looked at them, and that I could hear them laughing and cavorting just on the other side of that tangle of undergrowth. I shook my head, and laughed to myself. Definitely trying to freak myself out. 

I am a manager at a construction company that specializes in building houses in the Rockies. I say building, but we mostly prefab the houses at one of our two plants, load the pieces onto trucks, and assemble them at the house site. In most areas of the country, prefab houses are either looked down on as cheap, or are far more expensive than site-built houses. In the mountains, however, there is not a lot of room to move, and there is a severe shortage of construction labor. 

It was a Friday in late October, so my work load was light. Snow is always a possibility this time of the year, and that plays havoc with most construction, so most of our projects had wrapped up. The small office was mostly vacant after noon. I walked to the break room to brew a fresh pot of coffee. I flipped on the light switch, and froze. The mug was sitting on the table, right in front of me. I stared at it for a moment, heart pounding. I took a step towards the table, and realized it was just an ordinary white coffee mug. I laughed, and gave myself a mental shake. It did not occur to me to wonder why, moments before, I was completely terrified of an old mug. 

Snow began to fall around three, and had lightly dusted the near-empty parking lot when I left at five. Becky had texted me to pick up milk, bread, cereal, and other staples on my way home, in case the storm became as bad as the weather forecast predicted. By the time I turned onto the long mountain road to our house, it was past six, and full dark. The snow had lessened for an hour or so, but then blew in stronger than before. I have lived in these mountains for years, so my truck was well-equipped for those conditions, with snow tires, fog lights, and an extra light bar on the roof. I was lulled to a false sense of security by the blowing, fluttering snowflakes, when, in a flash of red and shadow, something darted in front of my truck. I felt a sickening thud, and heard a scream. I panic-braked, the truck slewing around on the icy road before skidding to  a stop. 

I shoved open my door, and jumped out onto the roadway, nearly slipping on the ice. “Hello!” I called out. I walked to the front of my truck, nausea creeping up my throat for what I knew could only be a scene from a nightmare. In the harsh glare of the headlamps and fog lights, there was nothing. Snowflakes ticked down onto the unmarred white of the road, and steamed against the headlamps. Frantically, I scrabbled for the large flashlight I keep next to my seat. I fumbled it on, and flashed it around underneath my truck. Nothing. I walked around the truck to the rear. Still nothing. Movement caught my eye, and I turned to look down the road to my right. There, on the snow-covered road, was a pool of blood, nearly black in the dim light. I took a step towards it, and the red pool moved. It moved a second time before I realized the red was a ragged swathe of cloth, wadded and partially frozen into the snow and ice on the road. I kicked at it with my boot, just to be sure, and it rolled limply away at my touch, flapping in the storm’s stiff wind. I let out a breath that I had been holding for hours, passed a shaky hand across my forehead, and walked back to the truck.

I saw them moving amongst the trees the rest of the way home. In my mind, Every time a cloaked figure darted alongside the road, my pulse quickened and my hands clenched the wheel, until I drew close enough to see that the shape was only a bobbing tree limb or swirling snow. I cursed them under my breath anyway, knowing full well my mind was playing tricks on me. 

Becky met me at the front door with a worried look. “You’re over an hour late. What took so long?”

“Deer jumped out in front of me,” I lied. “I thought I hit it, so I got out to look. I didn’t see any damage, so I must have grazed it.”

“Oh… dear,” Becky said, with a serious look upon her face. 

“Ha ha, you should take up a career in comedy.”

Becky burst out laughing, and we went to the kitchen and sat down for dinner. The mood was light, and the children were excited about the snow. “Daddy, the weather man says it’s gonna be a blizzard!” Brent said. I cast an inquiring eye at Becky. 

“That’s what the weather man says. Earliest blizzard in twenty years. Might be a long weekend,” Becky said. 

“Those weather guys can’t predict yesterday’s weather. It’ll blow past tomorrow. You’ll see. By Sunday, we’ll all be outside in our swimming pool, complaining about the heat.”

“We don’t have a swimming pool, Daddy!” Richie said. 

“We don’t?” I asked, with a mock-serious expression on my face. “Did someone steal our swimming pool?” The children laughed. “Someone call the pool police!”

After dinner, the children rinsed their plates, and put them into the dishwasher. Brent pointed at my hands. “I thought you said that was trash, Dad.” I looked down, and realized I had been holding the mug. Rubbing its sides with my fingers. “Yeah, buddy. I need to throw this away. Again. Thanks.” When I reached the trash can, I felt a small rattling vibration from the mug, as if there was something inside it. I shook the mug, and heard the rattle again. I peered into the mug — did it seem deeper now than earlier? — and saw something. I turned the mug, and shook a small white object into my hand. It was a tiny tooth. I looked at the tooth for a moment, then threw both the mug and the tooth into the trash. 

The next morning, Brent was missing. Becky woke me, panicked. We checked the various hiding places within the house, but stopped when we saw the tracks leading through the snow. 

“Maybe he just went out to play in the woods,” I said. 

“He never does that. Not without telling us. And not without his brother,” Becky said. 

“You stay here, in case he comes back. I’ll go after him.” 

I shrugged into my heavy overcoat, and my waterproof boots, feeling the tendrils of a bad headache slip around my brainstem. If anything, the storm had strengthened during the night, and visibility was poor in the woods. Over thirty inches of snow had fallen in the night, and drifts were as high as five feet in some places. If he had fallen into a drift — but I couldn’t think about that. Not with Brent.

The tracks led deeper into a forest landscape made alien by the snow. The forest was alive with the crashing sounds of snow falling from trees, and the cracking of branches unable to bear the additional weight. It sounded, at times, like a low chuckling laughter. I crested a small rise, and saw a splash of red in a low clearing below me. For a moment, I thought it was one of the creatures from the mug. As I drew closer, I saw it was Brent’s red toboggan. 

“Brent!” I called. He moved, turning towards me. He was sitting on a small tree trunk, huddled against the cold. “I hurt my ankle, Daddy,” he said, face upturned to mine, lips purplish. 

“Can you walk on it?” I asked, and he nodded. “Why in the world were you out here? You could have died, son!” I asked, as we slowly hobbled back to the house. 

“They wanted to play, Daddy.”

“Who wanted to play?” I asked, knowing, and dreading, the answer.

“There was a bunch of kids outside this morning. I saw them through my window. They waved at me. They asked me to come out and play, so I did. I followed them out to the woods, but I couldn’t find them. They were just gone!” Brent started to cry. “I’m scared, Daddy. I got all the way out here and twisted my ankle, and when I sat down on that log, I looked around for them. They were there, but there’s no tracks in the snow! How could that happen, Daddy?” 

I stopped, just outside view of the house. “I don’t know. Maybe you were still half-dreaming. Maybe they had on snow shoes. I do know one thing — don’t tell your mom anything about this. Keep it between us. Tell her you just decided to go play in the snow. And don’t go outside any more. Not alone, not with your brother or sister, unless I’m with you.” Brent nodded his understanding. 

Becky expressed her anger with Brent quietly when we arrived at the house. She checked Brent’s ankle, declared it sprained, and sent him straight to his room with a firm grounding — no electronics, no books, sit on the bed and be bored. Brent shuffled meekly upstairs, and Becky glared at me, as if it were my fault. “He said he just went outside to play,” I said. 

“It’s in the middle of a blizzard, Richard. He’s old enough to know better. The weather guy says it’s the worst early fall storm in ten years. I don’t want them going outside at all. It’s too dangerous. You can’t see farther than your fingers out there.” I nodded, but didn’t share my own reasons for agreeing with her. 

The power went out around noon. The lines to our house were buried, but some of the larger lines weren’t, so power outages were an expected part of winter in the mountains. I had bought a nice diesel generator from a liquidation auction a few years ago, and had installed it in a shed behind the house. I keep a week’s worth of diesel fuel in a tank near the shed. The property counts as a farm, and so long as I don’t put the specially-dyed ‘farm’ diesel into my truck (and get caught), I pay about half what I would have to pay at a regular pump. 

The switchover to generator power was manual, but not terribly difficult. After the lights had been off for an hour, Becky and I decided they weren’t coming back on for a while, so I bundled up and trudged through the ever-deepening snow drifts to the shed. The generator coughed into life on the third try, and I winced as my head throbbed in time with the noise. I checked the fuel level, the exhaust vent, and the breaker panel. I turned to walk back to the house, but when I tried to push the shed door open, it wouldn’t budge. I pushed harder, and the door opened slightly, letting in the dim white light of the blizzard. I heard a childish laugh, and saw Brent run past the slitted doorway. “Hey! Brent! Quit screwing around! I have to get the power on in the house!” More laughter. My headache roared into life, intensified by the racket of the diesel generator. I slammed my shoulder into the door, opening it by a few more inches. I reached my hand through the opening, and could feel a chunk of wood braced against the door, but I couldn’t move it. I slammed the door with my shoulder again, and Brent laughed from the other side of the door. The door shuddered as he kicked it back at me, hitting me in the face. I pulled back in shock for a moment, and then the red fog of my temper overtook me. 

I am not a violent man. This is due to years of patient, studied effort. When my temper does break, it breaks hard. I didn’t control it as well when I was younger, which ultimately landed me in a jail cell for a night after a drunken brawl when I was in college. I have lost my temper with the children at times; they drive you to it, with their testing. But not like this. The cold, the headache, the worry, and ultimately the deep sense of unease sent me over the edge of control. I roared in my rage, and slammed my body against the door. Some part of the wood or hinges snapped, and the door swung open. I looked around, but saw no sign of Brent, but I did see his tracks in the snow, leading back to the house. 

I kicked the shed door shut, and stomped up the path to the house. Once inside, I flung off my heavy coat, and climbed the stairs two at a time. When I reached Brent’s room, I flung his door open so hard that it rebounded from the adjacent wall. “Brent!” The sneaky little turd was laying on his bed, pretending to be asleep. “What the hell were you playing at, Brent?” 

“Wha-what?” Brent exclaimed, eyes wide, scrambling back away from me. 

Crack! I slapped him, hard, across the mouth. “Outside! Locking me into the shed!” 

Brent started to cry. Sissy. “Oh, suck it up, son. If you’re going to dish it out, learn to take it.” 

“I didn’t do anything!” he wailed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” 

“I saw you out there! I heard you laughing!” I raised my hand, curled into a fist this time, ready to do some damage. 

“RICHARD!” Becky shouted from behind me. 

I stopped, the rage draining from me, leaving only the whirling daggers of the headache, stabbing into my skull. I lowered my arm. “He wedged the shed door shut. I saw him, Becky.”

“I did not!” Brent shouted, still crying. 

“Richard, he couldn’t have. I was downstairs the whole time, and I never heard him go outside. And look, his clothes are dry,” Becky said. 

I blinked, and looked around. Brent’s boots were on the floor, dry from when he had toweled them off earlier that morning. Brent cowered on the bed, knees drawn up to his chest, face reddened from the slap. That was bad. Worse was the look in Becky’s eyes: anger, and concern, and a little bit of fear. Avoiding both of their gazes, I mumbled something in the way of an apology, and about getting the power back on, and fled the room. 

Dinner was tense. Brent had lapsed into a pubescent teenager sullenness, and wouldn’t look at me. Becky kept watching me as if I might fly into a homicidal rage any moment. Richie and Hanna were confused, both seeming to know that something was wrong, but not understanding what it was. I had shut off nearly half the breakers in the house, so as to make the generator fuel last longer. We ate quietly, in the sparse dim light. Afterwards, Becky suggested everyone go to bed early, and as a true sign of something being wrong, nobody complained.

I awoke with a start from some vague nightmare of something reaching towards me with terrible fingers, drenched with sweat and wrapped in layers of sheets and blankets. I lay there for a moment, pulse racing, trying to remember the dream. I rarely remember my dreams, and the last memorable nightmare I had was prior to Brent’s birth. I rolled over, and tried to go back to sleep, but realized I had to pee. I staggered to the dark bathroom by feel and memory. I made my way back to bed, and froze. Laughter, thin and childish, coming from upstairs. 

I heard the laughter again, as I quietly climbed the stairs to the second floor.  “Hannah, what are you doing up?” I asked my daughter, somehow knowing the answer, and dreading it. She giggled, and looked up from her spot on the floor. 

“The little people’s funny, Daddy!” she said, and smiled at me. In her outstretched hands was the mug. 

“It’s way too early to be up and playing, munchkin.” I gingerly took the mug from her hands, and put it on her dresser. I picked her up and put her back in her bed, and kissed her forehead. “It’s still sleepy time, so you be a good girl and go back to bed.” 

“Night-night, Daddy. I love you!” she said, as I closed her door. I carried the mug downstairs, opened the back door, and stepped out into the drifts of snow on the back deck. Murky, uncertain moonlight filtered through the low clouds, casting the forest into a chiaroscuro landscape of snow and shadows. The snow stung against my feet, melting into a slush that quickly soaked into my socks. I flung the mug as hard as I could into the nighttime forest, and waited for a few moments until I heard a distant thump that I imagined could be the mug landing in a snow drift, or perhaps shattering against the trunk of some lonely forgotten pine. The shadows clustered just outside the reach of the wan moonlight burst apart, each one resolving into a running, cloaked figure. There were hundreds. 

I stepped back with an inhaled breath, and a fist involuntarily drawn back to my mouth. The figures stopped, and turned to me, each as still as stone, watching me in the darkness. The rage returned then, welling up like blood from a wound, old and unhealed. How dare they. This is my house. This is my land. How dare they. I shoved my feet into boots, and threw on my heavy overcoat and gloves. I grabbed my rifle, a long, heavy thing with enough power to take down a bear, and left the house. Snow crunched and squeaked as I made my way towards the forest’s edge. The figures had dispersed, but I saw one moving away from me at the top of a rise. I tightened my grip on the rifle, and followed. 

Minutes or hours passed. I cannot rightfully say how long I stumbled along those snowy paths in the darkness. At some point I realized that I should have brought a flash light, I should have told Becky, I should have stayed at home. Whenever those thoughts came to me, they were quickly banished by a cloaked figure, beckoning to me from behind a tree, and later, after I fell in a snowdrift, laughing at me, kicking me in the ribs and dancing just out of reach. When I reached the clearing, I was exhausted, soaked with sweat, and freezing. My vision blurred, two scenes superimposing themselves, until I admitted to myself what I was seeing: the clearing, and the pool, was the scene from the mug. An array of short conical spruce trees stood at the edge of the clearing. In front of, and between, stood ranks of small figures whose cloaks appeared black in the silvery moonlight. Yet I knew those cloaks were red, red as blood.

The dark figures standing at the edge of the pool did not frighten me as much as the pool itself. It was small, and appeared shallow, but its black waters should have long frozen at those temperatures. I trudged forward, using my rifle for support, past caring about the snow and dirt fouling the barrel. When I reached the pool’s edge, and saw its dark waters slowly lapping at the edge, I realized that despite my fear, I was very, very thirsty. I looked to my left hand, where the white mug hung. I sighed, and sank to my knees. Sunk the mug, which was rattling again, into the gently moving waters. Filled the mug to the brim, brought it to my lips, and drank deeply. It was fantastically refreshing. I scooped more water from the pool, and drank again, and again. On my fourth drink, water dribbling from my chin and soaking my nightshirt, a chance break in the cloud cover allowed light from the gibbous moon a direct path into the pool, illuminating what lay beneath the surface. The twisted and hacked limbs looked blue in that light, dead eyes reflecting the moonlight almost as clearly as the surface of the pool itself. 

I recoiled from the pool in horror, and began to notice the smell of the clearing. The low temperatures had greatly dampened the odor, but there it was, the green and dripping odor of rot and putrescence, the faintly fruity odor of decay. I tried desperately to expel the fouled water that I had ingested, but my throat and stomach rebelled. I shoved two cold-numbed fingers into my mouth, but small hands grabbed my arms, and pulled them back. Other hands shoved me back to the ground, kneeling on the snow, and yet others entwined themselves in my hair, pulling my head back so that I might see what resolved itself at the other end of the pool. The cold winter darkness stretched there, like the skin of the world was being pushed at by some wet thrashing thing trying to push its way through. 

I awoke, or perhaps became aware of myself, some time later. I was sitting on my front porch, in the dark. I was very cold. I stood up, brushed the snow off of my pajama pants, and went inside. I took off my boots and overcoat, and turned to walk upstairs, when my foot clinked off of something on the floor. The mug sat on the floor, smooth and dry, glinting in the dim light from the kitchen.

I picked up the mug, and placed it on the kitchen counter. I found Becky’s magnifying glass in a drawer, and looked closely at the figures on the side of the mug. Their crude lines flowed and circled as they danced and ran in the snowy woods, chasing and herding children into the central clearing. While they ran, they told me things, in their small voices. They told me of how great He was, and how powerful, and how the world would tremble at His power. They showed me the sacred ceremony, how the children were tied and bound to the trees, and how the children’s living organs garlanded the trees as an offering to His Majesty, to quicken His arrival. 

I understood, finally. I was filled with awe at His might, and humbled that He and His children had chosen me to be His emissary, to be His Mid-Father that welcomed Him to the world once again. I understood what I had to do next. I was saddened, yet joyous. I chose the sharpest knife. 

The mug must be filled.

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Methenes Chapel

The Goat roared down the dusty country road, shattering the silence of the late October twilight. The Goat was a 1969 Pontiac GTO “Judge”, Ram Air and a Rock Crusher transmission. Jay had painted it a glowing, canary “arrest me” yellow, and he had mounted a goat skull on the dash. “You wanna see Methenes Chapel?” Jay shouted at me over  the roar. “Sure,” I said. 

We were college roommates, both nineteen, weird, into heavy metal, goth, industrial, and false occultism. We both knew our inverted pentagrams were fake, but it surely offended the normals in those small, rural Alabama farming communities. One of our favorite activities was ghost-hunting, which to us meant driving to supposedly haunted locations and acting out our own developmentally-challenged “Beavis and Butthead” episodes. 

Jay jerked the wheel sharply, and The Goat slewed onto a smaller dirt side road. “What’s Methane Chapel? Temple of Farts?” I asked. 

“Meth – eee – neees, you asshole. It’s a long eee sound. It’s an old abandoned church,” Jay said. “It’s about halfway between here and Buck’s Pocket. We can park The Goat around back and nobody can see it from the road.”

“Did you bring The Kit?” I asked. The Kit was our ghost-hunting kit: flash lights, glow sticks (in case ghosts ate our flash lights, I suppose), wooden stakes, rock salt, chalk, candles, a camera, and a crucifix filched from some relative’s dining room wall.

“Of course. It’s in the trunk,” Jay said. Jay was about a foot taller than me, lanky, with long wispy black hair and a thin goatee of which he was inordinately proud. He wore a black leather duster, black jeans, and black cowboy boots. I stood an even five and a half feet, and weighed a hundred pounds in my own grey trench coat. Ten years later, we would have been instantly marked as “trench-coat mafia”, and likely arrested solely on the suspicion of being suspicious, but in the early nineties a kid could get away with dressing poorly.

Jay drove The Goat more slowly down the winding dirt road, and began to tell me the story of Methenes Chapel.

“A while back this lady named Elise Whitley and a bunch of her friends decided to break away from their local church, and make a new church. I think part of it was that she decided God had told her she should be a preacher, and her church wouldn’t let her because you have to have a cock to talk about God or whatever. She and her friends got enough money together to build a church, and they built it off Gray’s Gap Road. The problem was, they built the church on land that was right next to a big grow operation. These were not people that you fuck with; they would just kill you and bury you in the woods if you bothered their operation.

“The church had a few Sundays, and about a month after it opened, Roger Clem, the boss of the grow-op, showed up outside the church. When Elise came out at the end of services, Clem went up to her and told her, point-blank, that she was to move her congregation elsewhere, or she would be sorry. Elise laughed at Roger Clem, and told him God had filled her with the Holy Spirit and she feared no man. Clem didn’t say anything to that; he just nodded his head once and walked off. 

“A few weeks later, one Sunday morning, the church caught fire. The whole congregation was inside, and someone had chained the doors shut. Most of the people got out the side door, but Elise Whitley burned to death trying to rescue some kid.

“Of course Clem had an alibi and never got busted. The remaining congregation vowed to rebuild, and they did. Six months later, they opened the doors to a new church, built on the same spot as the old one. The congregation said it just wasn’t the same. The place felt bad, felt wrong. People that were there alone said they felt like they were being watched. Others heard noises, laughter, or crying. That building nearly burned down three times in the first month, twice due to faulty electrical outlets and finally due to a freak lightning strike. 

“Maybe the lightning strike was the last straw. The congregation dispersed, and the building sat empty. I’ve been up there once, and it was creepy, but never at night.”

“First off, let me point out that you’re an asshole,” I said. “That story is total bullshit. You’re going to take me to another burned-out cow barn and swear it’s a meeting ground for Satanists.” 

“It is not!” Jay protested. “I’ve been out there once, and it’s really there! It’s creepy as hell, man!”

“If it sucks, I get to drive The Goat on the way back.”

Jay laughed. “Deal. You’ll never get to drive The Goat.”

Half an hour later, Jay whipped The Goat onto a nearly-hidden dirt track in the midst of a thick wall of vegetation. A minute later, and we saw it: Methenes Chapel. At first glance, the building was not very impressive. It was a single story building of indeterminate architecture, white paint peeling from wood siding, blind vacant windows staring into the darkened interior. The building may have once been made of straight square lines, but time and neglect had warped and softened those lines, so that none of them were straight. The building seemed slumped, slouched on the ground as if exhausted. Trees and bushes had grown up around the building, limbs pressing against the siding, their silhouettes framed in the dying orange light of the autumn sky. 

Jay eased the car around the building, peering into the doorless openings. He pulled the car up and back so it was facing the entrance, in case we needed to make a quick getaway, and we got out. No, Methenes Chapel had not seemed impressive from inside the car, but once outside, the hush around the building had a weight to it. The building felt less slouched, and more like it was hunched, and waiting. “Pop the trunk, Jay. This is not a good place.” 

Rather than rub it in my face, Jay quietly opened the trunk. We both grabbed flashlights and glow sticks, and I grabbed the Polaroid camera. Jay shut the trunk and started off toward the rear door of the building. I started popping Polaroids at the entrance. We moved through the open doorway, and into the Chapel. 

“This place is a wreck. You seriously need to watch where you put your feet.” I shined my flashlight around the floor. “Half these boards are rotten. If you get a nail through one of those gay cowboy boots, I will definitely be driving The Goat tonight.”

“Here’s the work of a genius,” Jay said, shining his light on the wall opposite the door. There was a crude pentagram in red spray paint, with the phrase “SATIN IS THE DEVL” written around it. 

“Yeah, you better watch out for Satin. He’ll … do what, make your sheets soft?” I said. Jay laughed, and moved to the next room. I popped another Polaroid, while Jay swung the flashlight beam around. We were standing in what must have been the main room of the church. Smashed and splintered pews were stacked in heaps against the walls. In a small area at the front of the room, beer cans and litter suggested someone had once camped there. We walked into the room. Jay turned toward the doorway on the right, and a voice boomed “PLEASE STEP AWAY FROM THE CAR.” 

We both flinched. “What?” Jay said. “PLEASE STEP AWAY FROM THE CAR.” Jay turned and began to run back the way we came. “Some redneck drug dealer is messing with my car!” he yelled. I followed him into the hallway, and through the open doorway, into another room. Jay stopped for a second, then ran through the doorway at the back of the room, into another hallway. 

“Umm, this isn’t the way we came,” I said, looking at the featureless gray walls. 

“Yeah, I know. Let’s go back to that first hallway, I think.” We turned around and retraced our steps to the first hallway. “Try that door,” Jay said. 

“None of the doorways we’ve been through have had doors,” I said. 

“I know, but I think it’s the right way,” Jay said. I pulled the door open, and went through into another small, dark room. “We must be in the middle of the church. There’s no windows in this room,” I said, as we walked across the room to another doorway. Jay opened that door, and we looked down a long hallway, with several identical doors along its length.

“please step away from the car.”

Jay looked at me. “That sounded far away, man.” 

“Yeah. Really far away, and on the wrong side of the building. This is fucked. This place is not that big. It’s only a couple hundred feet long.”

Jay reached for the knob of a door across the hallway. As his hands closed on the black metal, something slammed into the door from the other side. The door shook in its frame, and Jay jumped back. The distant sound of a car alarm began to blare from our left, down the hallway. “Go!” I yelled, pulling Jay’s coat, and we both ran down the hallway. We ran through room after room, following the sound of The Goat’s car alarm, until we stumbled out the room with the pentagram sprayed upon its wall. We leaped through the open door, pushed through the weeds and overgrowth and reached Jay’s car. 

For a panicked moment, Jay couldn’t find his keys. Cursing, he ripped at his jeans pocket until he snagged the keychain. Hauling the keys out, he triggered the alarm remote. “VIPER IS ARMED.” said the alarm. We looked at each other. Jay pressed the remote again. “VIPER IS DISARMED.” We got into the car, carefully checking the back seat. 

As Jay nosed The Goat down the overgrown path to the road, I took a final look at Methenes Chapel. It was only a glance, but to this day I can remember seeing her in the doorway, pale dress blowing in the autumn wind, black eyes filled with so much rage. 

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The Other One

Sometimes things do not go as planned. The heist certainly did not. I meant it to be a simple job — masks, a few guns, fast horses, a big score at the end. 

The big dumb deputy got Jim in the back, about a minute in. By then there was smoke in the air, screaming, lots of noise. I always knew Jim would die of a bullet, most likely in the back. I think he knew the same. I should have known that the sheriff would post a deputy at the bank. It made no sense. We had spent the previous night torching the Canaveras Ranch, shot old man Canaveras, shot his ranch hands, shot the wife and children. Let one run to town with a hole in her arm, in her bloody nightgown, so as to attract attention back to the ranch. Then we rode hard around the Gap to town, and waited until the kid rode up, nearly dead, screaming and hollering about murder. 

The sheriff. I thought he was stupid. At least more stupid than me, and I fear I won’t make that mistake again. We saw thirty men mount up and ride off towards the Canaveras Ranch. We waited a quarter hour, and then moved in on the bank. It was Friday, and I had paid well and more to be certain that there was gold in the vault.  We had ten men, including myself. Crusk and Jeffers kept the horses and the wagon, Ned and Wash watched the back, and Lou, Roy, Mace, Perce, Jim and I slammed through the front doors. I paid a certain whore to ask certain post-coital questions of a certain bank manager, and true to the whore’s word, the vault was wide open. 

Lou blasted the ceiling once, declaring the robbery. Roy and Mace fanned out toward the back, and Perce, Jim and I moved toward the center of the bank. That goddamned deputy — we didn’t see him at first. He had been sitting just inside the front doors, to the left. If he had been on the right, it would have been me dead, instead of Jim. Ultimately the better deal. The second shot was the deputy’s, punching through Jim’s back and out his belly, splattering two fine gentlewomen with his blood and bile. Jim spun and looked at me, blinked at me, and then he died. 

Perce turned around and gawped at the deputy, gun held limply in his hand, cocked but unused. I spun and put a bullet through the deputy’s eye before Perce could complete the thought of what had happened. My blood was up, by that point, the red rage hazing across my vision. Tap. Tap. Two fine gentlewomen, both dead. Perce’s mouth gaped. Tap. Perce was dead. With us for only two weeks, hired for a fractional share, he had proven himself to be the weak link. Named Perce or not, fools are born to die. The men looked at Perce, and Jim, and at me. “GENTLEMEN. Now that I have your attention, may we proceed with this robbery?” They jumped to it. 

Roy’s  head exploded backwards the moment he stepped into the vault. His corpse collapsed to the floor, bootheels jittering against the floor. “There’s another one in the vault!” Mace yelled. I shot the bank manager in the face. His glasses flew off onto a desk beside him. It made me feel a little better, but not much. “I’ll take care of it. Cover me.” I walked purposefully to the vault.  Fired two shots at the steel floor and ceiling. Reloaded, faster than most. Fired another shot at another angle and heard a yelp of pain. Got you, fucker. Dropped and rolled, twitched slightly left and shot the second deputy in the chest. Stupid bastard was aiming up, as if I would have made the same mistake as Roy. 

“We are running late, gentlemen. Load it up.” Mace yelled out the back for Ned and Wash, and we loaded the bullion into waiting crates in the back of the wagon. The street was empty. “There’s a lot of eyes on us. Clear out!” We mounted up and began to move down the main street. A hunter’s instinct made me twist in my saddle for a look over my shoulder. The third  deputy, the man on the roof of the warehouse across the street, took his shot then. The bullet caught me twisted around, high up on my shoulder blade, instead of through my heart. It didn’t hurt at first, and then it hurt a lot. 

I awoke with a bad headache, made worse by the bouncing wagon. “Where are we?” I asked. Wash handed me a flask, and I drank deeply. Water. Wash was no fool. Neither was he a talker, but at some point I had gathered that he had served as a medic in some army or another. He was a miserable shot, but he could take a leg off faster than any sawbones I had ever met. “Dug a bullet out your shoulder. You’ll live. Will hurt like a bastard. Don’t move it.” For Wash, that was quite a speech. 

Mace rode alongside the wagon. “We’re on schedule, sir. Ned took the decoy wagon north, ditched it at the river, and met back up with us last night.” If anyone could evade the trackers, it was Ned. The boy’s mother was Paiute, and though he was young, he seemed to be half-ghost when in the wilds.

“Last night?” I asked.

Mace scowled and spat a brown stream of tobacco onto the ground. “You been out a day and a half, sir. Wash says you’ll live.”

“We have just over five hundred thousand dollars in gold bullion, jostling around in the back of this wagon. We have murdered men, women, children, and horses. We are being hunted by every lawman this side of the Mississippi. I do not think those hunting us will be fooled for very long. Get the men. Change of plans.”

I sat on my horse, my right arm in a sling, the reins wrapped around my fist. The pain was at times quite bad, slicing down my arm in waves, but I would be damned if I would let my men know that I felt it. Damned more. Mace stood near me, next to his own horse. Jeffers was meticulously cleaning his two revolvers by lamplight. Ned curried his own horse, removing brambles and checking hooves for rocks. Wash and Crusk leaned against the wagon,  and Lou sat on a rock, idly whittling with that wickedly sharp blade of his. He picked up each wood sliver and placed it into a pocket, to be burned later. My men were no fools. 

“Time for the second part of the plan, gentlemen. I did not tell you about this part, and I do apologize for that. I could not risk the lives of all of you if one of you had been captured and made to talk. I owe all of you my deepest thanks, for following the plan so perfectly, and for saving my life after I had been shot.” The men had the grace to look slightly embarrassed, and Crusk might have blushed. It was hard to tell through the deep, stratified layers of grime on his deeply-tanned face.

“I told you all that we would head east to the river, and hire riverboat there. That was a lie. We have committed monstrous crimes, and our faces will be widely circulated at every town and port along our path. No, we will ride south and west, then due south, and cross the border. It will be several weeks of hard riding, and it will be hot. We are a day’s ride from a cache of provisions, and we will need them, as we will not venture near any towns or farms. We will shoot anyone that sees us, for we cannot have tale of our travel reach wrong ears. When we cross the border, we will angle east to the sea, and hire ship there. I hear the tropical beaches are beautiful this time of year, and with your shares, you will each and every one of you live like kings. Any questions?”

Ned moved, then spoke, flicking a nervous gaze to me, and then away, as if his eyes touched something hot. “That’s Indian territory. Some of those tribes… haven’t seen white men since the Spanish. Since they killed the Spanish.” 

“Quite right. We will be traveling severe and inhospitable paths, and as you will see, we will be quite heavily armed.” Roy knew about the second part of the plan, not that it helped him any in the end. Two weeks before, he had parked two wagons laden with provisions in a small, scrubby arroyo several miles from town, covering them with brush to hide them from any passersby. “Move the gold to these two larger wagons, and split it evenly. I want that wagon destroyed and its parts scattered in the brush. Our friend the sheriff might have a bead on its tracks, and I don’t want to leave anything behind. It is getting late, and we need miles between us and our crimes.” 

Thunder rumbled in the distance. Even in these dry lands, it rained, and those storms were often fierce. “Crusk, prepare yourself,” I said, as my men and I rode in the darkness. Crusk glanced at me, puzzled. “You may be about to receive your first bath.” Thunder boomed again, and the first coin-sized drops began to fall. Crusk boomed his harsh laughter to match the thunder, and the men laughed along with him. We had been riding for several days, almost a week, stopping only to rest the horses, or for one of the men to take a turn sleeping in a wagon. We had successfully avoided the few small settlements and farmsteads scattered across the arid countryside, and were steadily approaching the border. The rain would hinder our pace, but could provide other benefits, including wiping out any tracks. 

“Mace, wake up,” I said, riding next to the wagon in which Mace was sleeping. Mace opened his eyes immediately, and sat up. “Rain’s coming. Crack these barrels for fresh water.” Mace crouched in the bed of the wagon, and set to his task. Rain was coming faster then, and the men began to  shrug into leather coats and hats. 

Later, the rain was falling, as it had for hours, in thick furious sheets that made it hard to breathe, much less ride. One of the two large wagons was stuck, heavy from its own weight and hundreds of pounds of gold, mired in the mud at the bottom of a once dry creek bed. Jeffers, Lou and Crusk were silently swearing and grunting, slowly levering the wagon out of the muck with sideboard planks and brute force. “This ain’t a good spot, sir,” Ned said to me in a low voice. “Too much water coming down, and it needs to go somewhere.” He shook water from his eyes.  The rain hammered down onto the raw, exposed landscape, trickles merging into streams that merged into creeks where hours before lay only pebbles and raw rock. 

The flash flood came only a few minutes later, a black wall six feet high, studded with debris that included small trees and brush. It moved with a deadly, patient kind of slowness, stealing distance when not watched. The men and I abandoned the stuck wagon, Lou and Crusk dragging the crates of gold bullion high up on the opposite bank to rest near the second wagon, and tossing bales and casks of supplies one to another up and away from the flood. Jeffers stood between the oxen and the wagon, fumbling with the rain-swollen leather of the hitches. He cursed as an ox kicked nervously at the rising black flow. 

“Jeffers, leave them!” I shouted through the downpour. The floodwaters were at his knees, and the wall of debris was bearing down upon him. “Yes sir! Almost have it, sir!” The four oxen surged up the bank out of the roiling black flow, and Jeffers shouted his triumph. He walked away from the drowned wagon, through now chest deep water, towards us, and as he looked at me and grinned, a tumbling log hit him in the side of the head, and he vanished into the soup. The men shouted for him, but I did not. We waited, and watched the boiling, tarry black surface of the flood, as mud-covered trees tumbled end over end downstream. Lou probed several areas along the bank with long flood-stripped limbs, but he knew as well as I that Jeffers was gone. 

We rode for several hours through slackening rainfall to stop at the edge of a freshly-carved cliff. “This is new,” I said. Far below, floodwaters rumbled and roared. “There is no way to cross here. We will ride downstream to find a ford.” We traveled alongside the cliff until dusk, and I called a halt. “Set camp here, men. We all need the rest. Ned, this is unknown territory. Please scout our perimeter. Mace, you have first watch.” I busied myself with setting up a small oiled canvas tent, placed my cloak onto the slick, bare rock, and fell asleep almost instantly. 

Ned woke me at some small hour of the night. I rolled my shoulder, which was almost healed, but still stiff and viciously sore. The desert air had a chill, and the stars shone down like hard cold eyes in the dark. “Sir, I’ve found something.” I rose, and shrugged into my cloak. “Do tell, Ned.”

“It’s a town, sir. A whole town over there, just above the bluff.”

“Did they see you, Ned?”

“No, sir. I meant that there’s a town, but there ain’t no people in it. I weren’t sure at first, so I snuck up on it. I peeked in some windows. Folks’ stuff is still there, but there’s no people.”

“Rouse the men,” I said. “Tell them we go in hot.”

We approached the town as if it were hostile, guns drawn, wagon left on the outskirts. The town looked like any number of small mining towns that dotted the desert countryside, huddled against the slope of the mountain. There was a small strip of weathered buildings standing on both sides of the dirt track that served as the town’s main street, leading to the entrance to the town’s mine. Ned was correct. The place was empty. There were goods in the small store, and even bottles of whiskey in the saloon. The buildings were in good condition, with unbroken glass in a few of the windows. “What happened  here,” breathed Mace. “I do not know,” I said. “Whatever did happen, it seemed to have happened fast. These people left in a hurry.”

“Injuns?” asked Crusk. 

“I do not believe so,” I said. “We have seen no evidence of a struggle. Besides, most of the tribes in this area were rounded up for reservations a few years ago. Even if there were some holdouts in the area, I doubt they would want to draw attention to themselves by making trouble.”

Wash sat up straight in his saddle. “Smells like death here, boss.” I frowned, and inhaled. Something. Underneath the desert scent of creosote, and the local stink of men unwashed from days of hard travel, there was the faintest tracery of rot and decay. “Weapons at the ready, gentlemen. Death is near us; best not to let him too close.”

We found the livestock in a slaughter pit on the far end of the town, near the mine entrance. Cattle, oxen, horses, even a few dogs, each with a slit throat and stacked in a rotting pile that crawled with swarms of insects. Our horses whinnied and stamped, nervous at the scent of their dead kin. “That’s a lot of livestock, sir,” Mace said. He was spooked. I could hear it in his voice. “It looks like they killed all their stock. Why would they do that?” He twisted his reins in his hands, as his horse sidestepped. 

“Might be plague,” Wash said. “Never heard of one that’d get livestock and people both. Could happen though.” 

“In that case, move back to the other end of town. It might spread by bad air,” I said, and cantered down the road. The men followed. “We hole up until dawn. Search the town for provisions. Then we ride.” 

At the other end of the town stood a small, weatherbeaten grey church. We hobbled and tied the horses, and Crusk fetched the wagon closer. Mace and I entered the church first, guns drawn, torches in hand. My men and I had seen many horrors, through war and years together. Had inflicted some of those horrors. The sum of those events was a tiny thing, compared to what we saw in that church, in the flickering red sputter of torchlight. 

None of my men, nor I, were religious, chiefly because most religions would have damned us all to hell for any one of our countless crimes. It was, however, disturbing to see a place that people once thought was holy to be so defiled, so utterly desecrated. The altar was bashed and broken, covered in filth. The crucifix was torn from the wall and lay on the floor, smashed into several pieces. The pews were pushed against the wall in a splintered heap. In the rough center of the floor were the townspeople, or what was left of them. The rotting, blood-slick pile glimmered wetly in the dim light, the bones and red raw meat ripped apart and mashed together such that it was impossible to tell where one body ended and another began. The low whispering sound I had heard as I entered was the sound of millions of maggots and corpse worms and beetles expending their furious energy feeding upon their feast. That was not the worst sight, however, in that church.

“L-l-look.. up…” Mace stammered, his eyes floating huge and white in cavernous sockets shocked blue and black from fright. His open mouth worked in ways that suggested a scream, or worse, laughter. I looked up. Suspended from the ceiling by chains, and nails, and lengths of wire, and ropes, were what at first I took to be white sheets. Until I saw the stretched and distended face on one of those sheets. A dirty mass of curled blonde hair. The limp flop of shriveled penis, or a sagging, empty breast. Each skin was whole, and glinted with a sickening shine, as some unwholesome wetness coated them, dripping from them in thin threadlike streamers. 

“Out, Mace! Back out!” I smashed the door open with my boot, and walked backwards out the door, Mace following. “TORCH THIS TOWN, GENTLEMEN!” I bellowed. Lou looked at me quizzically, as I ran to the wagon for a jug of kerosene. “Something bad happened here, Lou. We burn this place to the ground, and then we ride.” I splashed the front of the church with kerosene, and set it alight with my torch. Lou took the other jug of kerosene, and set to work dousing the other buildings. Mace stared at the open door of the church, now licked in flames, and said nothing. 

Ned and Crusk rode up from the direction of the general store, saddles packed with supplies. “What’s going on, sir?” Ned asked.  

“Where’s Wash? We burn this place to ash and move out,” I said. 

“Ain’t seen him. Thought he was with you,” Crusk said. “Go find him. Torch the buildings as you go. Leave nothing standing,” I said, and handed Crusk the kerosene. The buildings lit quickly, even though they had been dampened by the rains. Soon the flames rose tall above the buildings, casting wild red lights and shadows up the mountain slopes. Mace was working furiously, thin lips pressed to the point of invisibility, a flop sweat on his forehead, ashes at his temples making him appear corpselike in the glow of the fires. 

“Boss!” yelled Crusk, from near the mine entrance. “I found … something!” Mace and I hurried down the dusty street, with burning buildings all around. Slumped at the edge of the slaughter pit, sprawled like a child’s broken toy, lay a human corpse. Most of, rather — the corpse was missing all of its skin. “Is that –” Crusk began.

“–Wash.” I said. “It looks to be his size.” 

Crusk stared at me with unbelieving eyes, skin below the grime bloodless and bone-white. “Boss… if that’s Wash, where’s his skin? Who did this to him?” Crusk knelt near the corpse, and held his torch close — only to drop the torch and scramble backwards as the corpse began to shudder and twitch, turning its eyeless face towards the torch flame. “Grargh!” spat the body, in a gout of black blood, splattering Crusk’s face. The body jerked hugely once more, and then pitched back, its last breath bubbling from the red wound that had been its mouth. Crusk looked at me with an expression that was pure misery and fear. “He was still alive, boss! That ain’t right! Why would they cut him up? Why would they leave him alive?” 

Shots rang out from down the burning street. Mace and I spun towards them, guns at the ready. Crusk staggered to his feet. Lou ran towards us, blood on his shirt, long blade in his hand. “Stay clear of Ned!” Lou yelled. “He’s gone mad! He came at me with a knife!” A shot boomed in the night.  “LIAR!” Ned shouted, revolver smoking in his wavering hand as he staggered into view. He was limping, clutching his abdomen, and we saw his bowels spilling from between his blood-drenched fingers. Ned screamed again, the splitting howl of a dying man whose only hope was to murder his own killer, and he fired once more, before toppling to the ground. Lou’s expression of shock and terror abruptly turned to one of malevolent glee, and he twisted to the  side, twisted inside his clothes, inside his skin, the flesh ripping open in long bloody rents, tearing like wet cloth at the joints. Ned’s last bullet skimmed through the air where Lou, or the thing wearing Lou’s skin, had been a fraction of a moment before. 

The thing reached up and pulled Lou’s face off of its face, bubbling and chortling with a thick, clotted sound that might have been laughter. Slick black carapace glittered in the firelight, and spiny, twitching legs or arms or tentacles unfurled and felt the air. It flung the flesh away, sloughing off clothing and shredded skin, and in a flicker, buried Lou’s long knife into Crusk’s chest. Crusk’s dying scream shocked Mace and I into movement, backpedaling and stumbling, firing shot after shot at the creature, as we fled into the gaping black mouth of the mine. 

I fell long before I heard Mace’s dying screams. The fall shattered both of my legs, and possibly my spine. The pain is quite intense, waves of it enough to make me black out. I know I am dying. My torch is burning low  now, but I have been able to complete this confession in my journal. A captain always keeps a journal. I hope that others find this record, and understand my warning. 

There are things down here in the dark, just out of reach of the torchlight. Sometimes I can hear them move. Sometimes I can almost see their shapes. 

I think they are eggs.

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The Space Between

Can a house be evil? Is it possible for a structure of wood and stone and plaster and glass to become more than the sum of its parts, in the negative sense? It certainly happens in the positive sense. Fill a house with light and love and family and that sense of comfort and well-being seems to permeate the very walls of the place. But … is it possible to architect a bad place, however inadvertently, through the unwitting intersection of board and beam?

The house on Red Apple Road was a bad place. It was an oversized farmhouse crouched sullenly on a slight rise, overlooking thorn-tangled fields long left to run wild. The house’s peeling paint may have once been white, or grey, but sun and time had long leached the true colors away, leaving the walls a jaundiced, sickly yellow. A single diseased elm leaned drunkenly in the shaggy yard, a rusted chain swing hanging from its single limb. The house’s windows were all intact, and winked in the sunlight like they knew a secret.

The rent was cheap. Bad luck and worse circumstance saw me driving a beaten-down Corolla to a nowhere town, for a stay I hoped was only temporary. The house’s owner, Burcell Lowry, bought the place for a steal at a bank auction. The prior owners had stopped paying the mortgage several years before, and had skipped town shortly afterwards. Lowry was a distant relative, and a call from my uncle prompted Lowry to offer the house for only a couple hundred a month.

I began hearing stories about the house soon after I moved in my few possessions. Lowry had a hard time keeping renters, which explained the cheap rent. Most of his tenants stayed less than six months, and one family only stayed for a single night before fleeing the state entirely, leaving behind their deposit and their dog.

I laughed most of these stories off as small town folk trying to haze a newcomer. I had experienced nothing in the house so far, asides from weak water pressure and a lack of functional air-conditioning, which Lowry had remedied with a new window-mount unit. I became more interested when I heard Jim’s story.

Jim was a manager at the Waffle House in town. He was a drunk, but he maintained through his drunkenness with an iron will and genial good humor that made my night shifts as a short order cook bearable, almost fun. “My nephew died in the front yard,” Jim said, drinking from his coffee mug on a slow Monday night — really Tuesday morning. “Cops said he weren’t wearing a seat belt. Car ran off the road, hit the ditch, and threw him out the front window. They said he was dead before he hit the ground.” Jim drank deeply. “Thing is, Paul wasn’t the only one who died in that house’s front yard. If you’re from around here, and you know where you are and where you’re going, you know to be careful driving on Red Apple Road. And you don’t use your brights when you go ’round the curve.”

Red Apple Road curved to the left around the house, and there was a deep ditch between the road and the house. According to Jim, the house’s windows faced directly opposite oncoming traffic, and would reflect the bright light of a car’s high-beams into the driver’s eyes. Every few years, some glare-blinded driver would misjudge the turn and slam into the ditch. By Jim’s count, that curve had claimed over thirty lives.

“Thirty people? Come on, Jim, you’re pulling my leg. Wouldn’t the state put up a guard rail or something?” I asked.

“State’s broke. County’s worse off. It ain’t a ‘priority’, as they say. So folks just slow down. It gets to be habit, I guess. Until one night, maybe they’s drank some, maybe it’s raining, maybe they’s just not thinking on where they are, then BAM.” Jim wiped smudges from the cash register.

“Surely Mr. Lowry would fix the windows, cover them up or something?”

“People have tried,” Jim said. “Shrubs don’t grow in that yard. A family that lived there in the eighties tried putting up black tar paper over the windows, right after a real bad accident. Didn’t last a week. That tar paper came down, and the family moved away.”

“Wow. No wonder the rent’s so cheap,” I said.

Jim laughed. “You don’t know the half of it. Ask around town.” He said no more afterwards, and commanded me to degrease some vent hoods, which I did willingly, lost in thought about my new home.

When I got back to the house, it was full dawn, the sun shining over the horizon, and morning dew sparkled in the fields. The house on Red Apple Road crouched sullenly in the morning mists, seeming to be resentful of the cheerful light. The bare, scrappy yard and the steep-sided embankment had new meaning, as did the scrapes on the asphalt of the road near the house.

I was slightly spooked from Jim’s story, so I did a quick walk through the house. Most of the rooms were bare, save for the living room, which was piled with boxes. My bedroom had a mattress on the floor and a few open boxes of clothing. I had installed heavy black-out curtains as soon as I was hired for my night-shift job, so the room was very dark. After a quick shower, I fell asleep almost instantly.

Only pieces of the dream came back to me, but it involved grasping fingers, and a terrible screaming sound, and flying feathers. I woke with a start, sitting bolt upright in bed, sweat-drenched sheets twisted around me. I was disoriented at first, blinking into bright sunlight. I looked around, and realized that my blackout curtains were gone. I checked my watch. Noon. I had been asleep for only four hours, before the dream. I got out of bed, and walked to one of the windows, thinking the curtains had simply come loose from the wall and fallen to the floor. They had not; there was no sign of them anywhere in the room. I checked the bedroom door, and found it the way I had left it: locked.

I unlocked the bedroom door and walked out into the rest of the house. The front and back doors were both dead-bolted from the inside, and in the kitchen, every cabinet door and every drawer stood open, and their contents were strewn across the floor. By this point, I was pissed. I called my landlord. “Mr. Lowry, I don’t appreciate practical jokes. If this is the way you make up for cheap rent, fine, but don’t mess with my sleep.”

“… I … I don’t know what you’re talking about, son,” said Lowry.

“I’m talking about how you or one of your friends took the curtains off my windows while I was asleep, and messed up my kitchen!” I yelled.

“I have been at a doctor’s appointment all morning. Just calm down. I’ll be there in half an hour and … I’ll reimburse you for any damages.”

By this point there was no way I could sleep, so after cleaning up the kitchen, I started unpacking. Half an hour later, Burcell Lowry rapped on the screen door. I showed him the kitchen, and some stubborn stains on the white cabinet doors, and he made some concerned noises. He had brought a replacement lock set, and I helped hold the doors as he replaced the deadbolts. “I could have sworn I replaced these after the Hernandez family moved out, but you never know. Might be some kids took it in their heads to give you some grief,” he said.

We looked throughout the house for the missing curtains, but could not find them. In one of the two upstairs bedrooms, I noticed a small square cutout for an attic access. I pointed at it, but Lowry refused. “I don’t have a ladder, and besides, this is an old, old house. I fumigate the house between tenants, but you can’t never get rid of all the spiders in old attics like this. If someone took your curtains and put ‘em up there, you don’t want ‘em back.” I found a roll of aluminum foil in a box in the kitchen, and Lowry helped me tape the foil to the two windows in my bedroom. He left shortly afterwards, and I collapsed into bed, hoping for a few more hours of uninterrupted sleep before my shift.

I woke to the sound of screaming, and for a moment, wondered who was making the noise, until I realized it was me. I couldn’t recall the dream, only that it was bad. A bright light filled the bedroom, casting my shadow hugely on the wall. I turned, and realized that the foil was gone from both windows.  The light was from a car on Red Apple Road, going around the curve. I sighed, got out of bed, and got dressed for work.

The next morning, after work, I walked down Red Apple Road, away from the house, and then I walked back. I could clearly see the deep scratches on the asphalt, and how they aligned with the punched-out gouges on the embankment.

The house continued to taunt me in small ways over the course of the next few days. Lights that I knew I had turned off were on when I came home. Boxes were moved, or knocked over. I was greeted at the door by the smell of baking cookies one morning, and found the oven on, set to bake. There were no cookies. The house developed a gradual sense of wrongness that existed more at the corner of my eye than straight ahead. When passing doorways into other rooms, those rooms would seem, from a casual glance, to be much larger, and to contain more furniture, or other things. The stairway in the front hallway did not exist, yet I could feel it behind me as I walked out the front door every night, stretching up to the second floor that wasn’t there, and down to a basement that never was. I could hear the echoes of my footsteps against the hardwood steps, and feel the draft from the basement, but only when I had forgotten to firmly believe that the house had only a single floor.

On my day off, I went shopping at the town’s small supermarket, which was a filthy Piggly Wiggly that had seen better decades. At the checkout counter, the red-haired, morbidly obese woman fluttered her canary yellow eyelids at me. “How’s living in the haunted house?” She asked. I  looked at her. “Everyone knows it’s haunted. That place has been bad luck for  as long as anyone remembers. I bet that old queer Lowry didn’t tell you what happened to the last people, did he?” She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, piggy little eyes gleaming under the fluorescents. “The father went crazy, like in that movie with the hotel? Killed all the kids, ‘cept for the one that was with the mother. He died in jail, and she’s out of state. You know what’s the worst? They never found the bodies of those kids. He said the house took ‘em. The cops dug up all the fields around there, had dogs out and all, but they never did find those poor babies.”

I swallowed, and grabbed my bag of groceries. “Well, uh, thanks for the info.”

“No problem, honey! And don’t let me make you nervous. It’s just small town gossip. There ain’t no such thing as ghosts!”

The late evening sun reflected like blood, or fire, in the house’s windows, when I returned. I put my groceries away in the kitchen, and put my other purchases in the bedroom, in front of the windows. I walked through the rest of the rooms of the house, holding a battered old flashlight like a club. The grocery-store lady’s story had spooked me more than I cared to admit. After finding no ghosts in the closets, or demons in the bathroom, I gave myself a mental shake and went to the living room to read. After so many night shift evenings, I knew I would be awake for a long time.

The loud cracking sound jolted me awake, heart hammering in my chest. I looked around the room, unsure of where I was. I realized I had fallen asleep in my chair. My book was on the floor, and I decided that it had woken me when it fell. I laughed to myself, shook my head, and stood up to stretch. Mid-stretch, I heard an answering laugh, from upstairs. I looked up, and my heart began to race again. Footsteps from above. I grabbed the long metal flashlight from beside my chair, and cautiously stepped into the foyer. I pushed the button for the hall light, and tightened my grip on the flashlight.

More shuffling from upstairs, and a tittering, wheezing laugh. I stood at the bottom of the stairs, and tried to see through the darkness at the top. I placed my foot on the first step, and another crack! reverberated through the house. I glanced behind me to the front door, and saw a light dusting of plaster falling from the ceiling in front of it. I climbed the stairs, riser after riser of old wood so brown as to be nearly black. The upstairs hallway was short, and thankfully empty. I hit the light switch with a sweat-slicked palm, fumbling at the unfamiliar two-button style, until the bare bulb turned on, shining its wan yellow light flickeringly onto peeling wallpaper and three brown wooden doors.

I yanked open the door closest to me, across from the stairwell, to find a shallow linen closet, stuffed with old quilts and blankets. I shut the door, and listened for sounds. The house was silent, as if it was holding its breath before revealing a surprise. I turned to my left, and walked to the door at the end of the hall. The plaster was arched here, as was the door, which was smaller than the other doors in the house. The black iron knob was very cold, when I grasped it, and squealed like something unpleasant when turned.

The small door swung wide into the room, and darkness spilled out into the hallway, like the lolling tongue of a hanging victim. My flashlight did little to dispel the gloom. I walked a step forward, and another, and another, and as I crossed the threshold of the little doorway, I noticed two lighter spots in the murk. Two spots that disappeared, and reappeared. A low chuckle burbled up from my left.

“Welcome, stranger,” said a high-pitched, childlike voice. “You’re in time for dinner.” A dim, red light began to filter into the room, revealing a scene from a charnel-house. The walls and floor were caked and coated with gore, dripping in clots that gleamed black in the strange light. A rough wooden table dominated the center of the room, cluttered with the rotting ruins of a cannibal feast, limbs and entrails draped in disarray across the blood-drenched wood. Crouched at one end of the table hunched a nude, haggard man, grey-black hair greasy and limp against his pocked and disfigured flesh. His jagged teeth bit and gnashed as he cracked a small, delicate bone and sucked at the marrow. He rolled flat and somehow fishlike yellow eyes at me.

“That’s my Papa,” the voice said. “Not my real Papa. My real Papa’s dead. It’s ok.” I looked to the left, and saw her. The girl was small, with unhealthily white skin and black hair that glinted redly in the light. She could have passed for ten, or twelve, save for her eyes. Her eyes were nothing human, gaping black bottomless wounds in her small delicate face, two holes gouged through the skin of the world. “My new Papa raised me himself, from when I was a little baby. He raised me to be a queen.”

She had been slowly creeping towards me as she spoke, one stuttering step after another, as if she was unfamiliar with something so mundane as walking. “They are coming. This is their place. You can join us. You can be with us to welcome them.” Another step. “This is the between. They come from outside. They were here before. They want in.” Her foot came down on a small bone and as it snapped, I realized she was right in front of me, so close that I could smell the reek of corpseflesh from her breath, I could see the rags of it in her teeth, I –

– realized there was no second floor. There had never been a second floor. I ran, turned and ran, pounding down the hallway that was far longer than before, far too long, down a flight of stairs that had two more turns and two more landings than it had when I climbed them, feeling her small childish hands grasping at the nape of my neck. I hit the front door with full force, knowing it would be stuck firm, but hoping, and it burst open wide, sagging from one hinge.

I continued running until I reached the car. I flung the door open, and jumped in. I slammed the door shut, locked it, and glanced at the back seat. There was nothing. With a deep sense of dread, I slowly lifted my gaze to the house. The single-story structure stood black and silent, its front door hanging askew from broken hinges. I passed a shaking hand through my sweat-slicked hair. For a moment, my view doubled, and I saw a different house. One with a second, and a third floor. One with a shadow in front of an upstairs window. I revved the little car’s engine, and drove away from the house as fast as the car would go.

The car idled in a church parking lot a few miles away. I pulled out the cellphone I had stashed in the center console, and dialed the one number that I had programmed in. It rang the other prepaid cellphone I had bought weeks ago. I rubbed my face, feeling the slightly raised skin of the long-healed scars that had been itching and throbbing for the weeks that I stayed in that house. “I believe you. I’ll do it.” I pulled the SIM card out of the phone, snapped it in half, and threw the pieces out the window.

I cracked a rib or two when I bounced off of an old wooden fence post. I had to guide the car far enough off the road to avoid the embankment, but close enough to hit the windows dead-center. That meant being inside a burning car for far longer than I was comfortable with. I had strewn several liquor bottles around the front of the car, and wedged the accelerator with a brick and some rope. Just in case, I wore a BMX off-roading jacket and an old motorcycle helmet. At the last moment, I lit the rag protruding from the small jug of kerosene I had belted into the driver’s seat.

The car hit the side of the house with a satisfying crunch, shattering those hateful, murderous windows, and rupturing the cans of kerosene I had stored in the bedroom. I lay on my undamaged side in the field, wheezing into the silence for a few moments. Then, with a sound like a shocked inhalation, there was a huff, and a WHUMP, and the fuel caught. Within moments the side of the house was in flames, and in half an hour, the place was a pyre. I watched it burn from a slight distance away, under the boughs of an oak that was older than the state in which it stood. The fire roared and screeched like bitter, thwarted rage.

Lowry was good to his word, though it took almost a year for him to get the money to me. When his insurance company finally settled, he made quite a profit. I promised him I would put the money to good use. There’s always something else out there, waiting to be put down.

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Storage

“Your honor, I’ve seen shit that would turn you white!” — Winston, Ghostbusters.

There’s not a lot of work out there for a twenty-ish ex-security guard with a bad case of PTSD. And if that dumb kid was hideously scarred by a ‘serial killer’ that had carved a swathe of victims across three states and disappeared without a trace? That kid can barely get a hamburger at McDonald’s, much less gainful employment.

My parents weren’t able to help much. The wounds on my forehead and cheeks healed after a few weeks, or months. I wasn’t counting. You can still see them if you look closely, or in moonlight. Nobody looks too closely these days. There’s something about my eyes that seem to reflect the things that I’ve seen.

I can identify with Winston. I’ve seen some shit. And that shit would turn you white, if not stark raving mad. And I may in fact be mad, because I keep seeing shit.

After the … incident, I spent a few days in the hospital, and a few weeks in the psych ward. They assumed I’d suffered a psychotic break due to ‘trauma’ or ‘shock’, and since most of my story did in fact sound like delusional ravings, off to the pretty pastel room I went. Life went on, the University reopened for classes on schedule, and the cops eventually stopped questioning me.

I went home and sat on the couch for a few weeks, and gradually got the sense that my parents wanted me gone. I seemed to make them nervous. I seem to make everyone nervous now. Tempers flared, words were said, and the next day I was on a bus to somewhere, anywhere. I had about a thousand in savings, plus my dad had stashed another few hundred in my bags, so I was able to rent cheap rooms and eat cheaper meals along my way, but I knew I would need to find a job soon.

I had been traveling in a vaguely southern path, and finally ended up in a bus station in a town on the outskirts of Birmingham, crouched in between the off-ramp to I-65 and a storage facility. I would say it was in an industrial district, but it seems that Birmingham is entirely failed industrial district. The place had the charm of a three-day-dead whore, and smelled like one as well.

Walking outside the bus station and past the chainlink fence encircling the UStore facility, I noticed a dingy, yellowed “Hiring” sign in the office window. “What the hell,” I thought, and pushed the dust-hazed door open and went inside.

The manager’s name was Al, but he looked nothing like my scrawny old ex-coworker. Al was a morbidly obese black man, with a gap between his two front teeth and a Cher t-shirt that looked as if it had been new in the 80s. “You got ID, you got no needle holes, you don’t stink like booze, and you even got a fuckin’ r?©sum?©. You must be my fuckin’ gift from God. You’re hired. You start right now. You got a place to stay?”

“No sir.”

“Good, that’s better. You stay in the apartment upstairs. I’ll pay you eight bucks an hour for forty hours a week. You work more than forty hours in a week, pretend you’re payin’ me rent. You’re off on Mondays and Tuesdays. If you want health insurance, you can call the fuckin’ President, ‘cos I ain’t seen mine yet neither.”

Al took me on a tour of the facility. UStore was much bigger than it looked, consisting of twelve buildings arranged inside a square security fence. Each building had four storeys aboveground and two more belowground. The lowest levels were premium-rate and surprisingly heavily-secured, with motion sensors and video cameras at every hallway intersection. “Motion sensors are a pain my dick. They go off if a fuckin’ moth flys down the fuckin’ hall, but we still have to check video and log it.”

The job was pretty much the same security job I was used to: work an overnight shift, nine P.M. until six A.M. Walk the perimeter twice, check the storage buildings once, pick up any trash, then go back and check the alarms and the video. Log anything out of the ordinary, and investigate as needed.

“Mostly, you just keep your mouth shut and let customers alone. They’re paying our bills, so you don’t need to know what they’re fuckin’ doing in their unit. Which may in fact be fuckin’!” Al laughed. “If a customer gets loud, makes a scene, or especially if they fuck up the facilities, you call the cops first and me second.” Al rapped a metal storage unit wall, which echoed beamingly down the hallways. “These walls are pretty strong, but you can punch a dent into one with your fist, and a knife will poke a hole in it. Nobody wants to rent a unit that’s all dented up, and these walls are a bitch to replace.”

We had been walking the security circuit, with Al pointing out each checkpoint, and we had reached the entrance to the high-security section. “Customers take the elevator. They gotta put in their code to get that elevator to show up, and then they gotta put in their code again to go down to B1 or B2. It really fucks ‘em up. They’ll get confused and some of ‘em will panic inside the elevator, so you gotta keep your radio on you all the time. They’ll eventually see the ‘Intercom’ button and call you, so you gotta explain to ‘em they gotta put their code in again. For us, it’s the stairs, cos I hate those fuckin’ elevators.”

Al swiped his badge and swung the heavy door open to the stairwell, and we walked through, and I … froze.

It was the same stairs. How could it be the same stairs?

I stood there, tiny breath whistling in my throat, hand locked in a death grip on the cold steel railing.

“Hey, you ok? You havin’ a heart attack or something?”

I blinked. It wasn’t the same stairs. Not at all. These were new, shiny steel, brightly lit, and I could clearly see the bottom. “No, sorry, I thought I had to sneeze. Was … waiting for it.”

“Yeah, fuck. All the fuckin’ dust in here. Wait ’til spring, and it’s like fuckin’ yellow snow all over.”

High Security (or HS) was similar to the higher levels, but more brightly-lit. The units were larger, so there were less of them. “Wow, it’s cold down here,” I said.

“Yeah, we keep it at fifty year round. We got some law firms that keep their papers here, and don’t tell nobody, but we got some government agencies that do the same. We keep it cool and dry, and their papers will stick around forever. Got some customers that keep art down here, and antiques, and shit like that,” Al said.

The doors to the HS area were car-width, and looked to be made of sturdier stuff than the flimsy sheet metal of the less expensive units. “Can people store cars down here, Al?” I asked.

“Naw, no way to get ‘em down here. Building 3 has a ramp and a loading dock for cars, but most people don’t wanna store ‘em in these buildings. Regulations says you gotta drain ‘em of oil and gas and any other fluid, which makes ‘em a bitch to get into the units. Regs say ‘NO explosives’. Remember that, kid. You see some dumb ass storing his lawnmower AND the gas can, you log it and you tell me.”

We continued touring the HS levels, B1 and B2. Al pointed out the security cameras at each intersection, and at midpoints down the hallways, and showed me where the security route would take me. “Don’t always walk the same route. That’ll drive you nuts. Mix it up some, but make sure you tag those checkpoints,” said Al.

We made it back to the office, and Al took me upstairs to a small apartment. It was a little bigger than my dorm room in college, with a small kitchen, shower, bed, closet, and a TV. Al pointed at the TV, “That might have cable. It ain’t supposed to, and I’ve never seen a bill, but I won’t tell if you don’t. Okay, kid, you better get some sleep. You’re on-shift at nine. If you’re late, or I catch you sleepin’, you’re out on your ass. You get people wantin’ to rent a unit at three AM, they’re idiots or tryin’ to rob you. Tell ‘em the office is closed at night.” Al squinted at me.

“You know how to work a gun?” he asked.

“Yeah, my dad taught me… is this that bad of an area?” I asked.

“Aww shit no, kid. You might need to show the gun to some tweakers, but that’s about all. The glass is all bullet-proof, and those are solid steel doors. If some junkie’s fuckin’ with you in the office, there’s a gun under the desk. It ain’t loaded, but there’s clips in the bottom drawer if you need ‘em.” He looked me directly in the eyes. “And if you do need ‘em, you don’t need ‘em. You need to call me on the radio, which is what you’ll do.”

“What about inside the facility?” I asked.

“You’re inside a highly-secured, state of the art storage facility with a radio and keys to nearly a thousand steel doors. I bet you could figure something out,” Al replied. He left, and I took my duffel bag to my room, and tried to sleep.

The first night was non-eventful. So was the next. And the next. Weeks passed, and I began to feel … better. I got into the swing of being a security guard again, which is mostly looking for differences. I recognized the patterns of UStore, and its customers. The late night crowd was usually pretty quiet, except for Thursday night band practice. Some kids had gotten the bright idea to rent out one of the cheap ground level units to store their musical instruments in, and they practiced every Thursday night. I didn’t mind. They weren’t that bad.

About once a month, on a Wednesday night, there was a porn shoot in one of the units. I wasn’t very clear on what was going on until I mentioned it to Al the next day. A long black limo pulled up around 11PM, and several stripper-quality girls got out, followed by a few guys. They’d all troop down to one of the larger HS units, and they’d pack up and be gone before dawn. “We rent the units,” Al said. “So long as they’re payin’, and not breakin’ the units, we don’t say a word.”

Most of the customers weren’t like that, though. They were regular people moving stuff around, up late because they had to work and couldn’t move during the day. I saw guys fixing cars, a woman who used a large unit as her extra closet full of clothes, and a couple who were building a baby crib. They had a full woodworking setup inside their unit, complete with dust suppression and built-in vacuums. But mostly, it was people moving boxes of stuff in and out.

Everything was going so well, for maybe six weeks, and then I saw it. I saw her.

I had become accustomed to the false alerts from the motion-sensing cameras, especially in building 8. The building was close to the highway, so I suspected the sensors were falsing due to road vibrations. Once or twice a night, usually in the long stretch of dark between 3 AM and dawn, I’d hear the beeping from one of the many cameras in B1 or B2 in Building 8. I would put down my book, acknowledge the alert, write ‘FA’ (false alert) in the logbook, and glance at the long, empty, brightly-lit corridors in the monitors.

It was early on a Wednesday morning, the beginning of my week, and I’d been playing a game on my DS, when the alerts went off. I sighed, and put down my Gameboy. I reached for the logbook, and noticed something in the monitors from the corner of my eye. I looked up, and saw, in the middle of the hallway, a small shape. I leaned closer, and hit the camera controls to switch to a closer view. Standing in the middle of a highly-secured, brightly lit hallway, two floors underground, was a little girl in a bridal gown. “What .. the .. fu..” I started to say, and the girl’s head snapped up toward the camera. Her black eyes staring at me through the monitor, as if she had heard me. She lifted a finger to her lips, and ran offscreen.

I frantically thumbed through the camera views, but could see her nowhere. “Screw this,” I muttered to myself, and I grabbed my flashlight, and the gun from the holster under the desk. I bolted out the office door, pausing only to make sure it was locked, and started running down the paved alley leading to Building 8.

At this point, I wasn’t thinking of anything supernatural. I was thinking of the scumbags who made porn movies in my facility, and thinking maybe that little girl had escaped something really awful. Or was still involved in it. I called Al on his radio while I ran. “Al, wake up. We got … an intruder in Building 8. Repeat, intruder in Building 8. Wake up!” Al lived nearby, within radio range, and he mumbled something about being on his way.

I badged the main door to Building 8, flung it open, and ran across to the stairwell. The panic, which hadn’t returned since my first day, hit me like drowning in the ocean. I stopped, backed up, and shut the stairwell door. I didn’t have time for this. I ran to the elevator, punched in my override code, stepped inside, punched in my code again, and rode the slowest elevator in the world down to B2. The gently-playing Muzak version of Cher’s ‘Believe’ did nothing to make the situation better.

I cautiously stepped into the corridor. I’d kept the gun in my jacket pocket, not wanting to spook anyone, especially with a kid involved. I walked down the hallway, and found nothing. Turned at the end, down the next hallway, still nothing. No locks out of place, no units opened, no sounds, no smells, nothing. I checked the stairwell, nothing. I gritted my teeth, and walked up the stairs to the B1 landing. Looked out the door, and found nothing. By this point I was hoping I would find anything — a shoe, a body, hell, a whole murder scene, but there was nothing. My radio crackled, and I jumped and bit my tongue. “I said, where are you?” Al’s voice grumbled over the radio.

“B2 in Building 8, south stairwell,” I said.

“Found anything?” Al asked.

“Not a thing. Sorry man, it’s probably a false alert.”

“Hey, it happens. Just once though. Meet you back at the office. We’ll check the tapes.”

“Roger-roger,” I said into the radio. I sighed, and walked down the long hallway to the elevator. I checked the remaining hallways, retraced my steps to the elevator, and punched in my code. As the elevator doors closed, I thought I heard a sound. A girlish giggle. “God dammit,” I said. I punched the cancel button. The elevator doors slid open, and I stepped out, and quickly looked both ways. There! To my left, a gauzy white shape disappeared around a corner. Another giggle. I looked up at the security camera, pointed at it, then pointed in the direction of the corner. Holding my flashlight like a club, I jogged to the corner, and quickly checked both ways. Nothing. Of course. I ran as fast as I could down the long corridor to its end, turned and saw nothing. Ran to the intersection, nothing. To the next intersection, nothing. To the end, nothing. Finally, wheezing, out of breath, I yelled, “Okay, you bastards. I give up. Enough from you for the night!”

Al was at the desk when I got back. “Enjoy your exercise, kid?” he asked. “Yeah, I’m trying out for the Olympics,” I replied.

“Maybe the Special Olympics. I just watched you run two miles inside Building 8, for no fuckin’ good reason.” Al said.

“Figures,” I said. “So you saw nothing? On any of the cameras?”

“Not a thing”

Al made me sit through repeated viewings of the security footage. He made it a point to show me pointing at the camera, from all angles. Each camera showed the bright, empty hallways. “You sure you’re not on anything, man?” Al asked.

“I swear I saw something –” I said.

“Chill, man, this is me fuckin’ with you. I believe you. It gets late here, you see shit. Stare at those screens long enough not seeing anything, and your mind will start adding shit just cos it’s bored. I’ve seen shit too,” Al said.

“Yeah, like what?”

Al shifted in his seat. “I never seen a girl. I saw a dude walking down the hallway once. Normal lookin’ dude, walking around like he was a customer. But that console there shows door accesses, and it hadn’t gone off in a while. I thought maybe some asshole was trying to live in one of the units, which is against regs. It happens sometimes. I checked it out, and there wasn’t anybody there.” Al reached into the micro-fridge under the desk, and pulled out one of his favored lime sodas.

“That wasn’t the worst, though,” he said, cracking open the can. “I saw blood once. A whole lot, splashed around, all over the damn place. I used to take those damn elevators, and one time, ding, door opens and … ” He took a deep swig of his drink. “I just stood there. The door closed. I coded it open again and it was gone. I know it wasn’t real. I’d been working about twenty hours straight. I just … figure something don’t want me riding the elevators no more. So I don’t.”

It got worse after that night. I can’t help but think that my pursuit, and my taunts, woke something up. Or maybe something recognized me.

Afterwards, I had company every night. The still, sterile mood of the facility from before had changed, grown lower, grown mean, like it was lying in wait. When I made my rounds, I would hear footsteps behind me, or down adjacent hallways. I heard faint voices as well, muttering and whispering from behind the cold steel doors of the storage units.

The upper units were the worst, because they weren’t brightly-lit all the time like the HS units. The upper level lights were motion-sensitive, and on timers — they would turn on when you entered a hallway, and turn off when you left. Several times during my rounds, those lights would flick on at the opposite end of a long corridor, only to flick off again after a few seconds.

One night, during my first round, I was walking the dim asphalt paths between buildings. I turned a corner, and standing before me was a girl. I jumped back in shock. The girl uttered a short squeak, and stopped. “You scared the hell out of me, you asshole!” she yelled. “Aren’t you supposed to be using that flashlight?”

“Sorry. It ruins my night vision,” I said. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I wasn’t expecting to see anyone out here.” I recognized her. Her name was Jen. She was the bassist for the band that practiced in one of the units. She had long, straight black hair, and her several piercings glittered in the moonlight.

“I was on my way to your office,” Jen said, “so I’m kinda glad I ran into you. I’m sorry I snapped at you earlier. It’s just … I can’t find Lewis anywhere.” Lewis was the gorgeous and talented singer for the band, and (to my deepest regret) her boyfriend. “We had a fight, and he stormed off like the chickenshit he is. I can’t find him now.”

We walked back to the building that housed her band’s storage unit. “If he’s in the facility, he can’t have gone far. Your access code will get him into the main level of this building, but he can’t go anywhere else. The elevator takes a code he doesn’t have, and the stairwell doors are locked too,” I said.

The other band members were in their storage unit, rolling up cables and packing gear. “Did you find him?” asked the short, stocky drummer.

“No,” I said. “How long has he been gone?”

“About an hour, now,” replied the drummer. “I tried calling him, but I get shit for signal in here.”

“Not like he’d answer anyway,” said a tall, skinny kid, who was packing away a guitar. He looked at me, and said “Wow, that’s a cool tribal, man,” pointing at the scars on my face.

“It’s not a tattoo,” I said, not wanting to get into Meet-The-Freak with customers.

“Will you guys focus?” Jen said.

“Right,” I said. “You guys stay here, in case he comes back. I’ll sweep this floor, and if I don’t find him, I’ll check the video back at the office.” I left, and checked the entirety of the ground level. For good measure, I checked the upper floors as well, knowing there was no way he could get up there. I went back to the band’s storage unit.

“Did you see anything?” Jen asked.

“No, and he’s obviously not come back here. I’ll go check the videos.”

The band members decided to go home, except for Jen, who insisted upon going through the video footage with me. “Look! There he is!” she said.

“I see him.” The monitor showed Lewis leaving his storage building right after Jen said he had stormed off. Lewis stood by the door, smoking, for a few minutes, then turned his head sharply to the right, as if he had heard something. He then threw down his cigarette, and walked down the asphalt path, out of the view of the camera.

“Where did he go? Quick, find him on the other screen,” Jen said, rubbing her hands on her leggings. I toggled through video feeds, until I found Lewis again, walking down the path. He stopped, looked around, then turned again, and started walking. I switched feeds again, and found him walking towards Building 8.

“Aren’t those doors supposed to be closed all the time?” Jen asked, pointing at a dark spot on the grey and white screen.

“Yes,” I replied, as Lewis paused before the open, black threshold to Building 8, and stepped inside. I toggled through the feeds again, until I found the one for Building 8. I could only see his silhouette as he walked down the hallway, pausing occasionally to look around, and finally as he pulled open the heavy, magnetically-locked security door to the stairwell. He stepped inside, and pulled the door closed behind him.

“Shit. That’s bad,” I said. “Those doors are mag-locked, and they can’t open unless you have a badge and a code.”

Jen shook her head. “It sure as hell opened, though. You saw it.”

I switched feeds again, catching a glimpse of Lewis in the stairwell. Switched again, and saw him walking down the bright corridor of the B2 level, toward the camera. Toward an open storage unit, door rolled up and yawning open, like the black eye socket of a dead thing. Or a mouth. I saw the pale blob of Lewis’ face glance up at the camera, then whip back to face the darkened doorway. His eyes widened, mouth opened into a silent scream, and his figure jerked forward into the storage unit. The heavy door rolled down and slammed shut, leaving the camera staring blindly at the pristinely empty hallway.

Jen stared at the screen, mouth slightly open, eyes wide, bulging, ringed in the black of shock that no amount of makeup can match or mask. “… Go. Get. Him.” She grabbed my shoulder, with hands made musician-strong. Squeezed. Hard. “Go get him NOW.”

I grabbed the pistol from its holster, and dug two clips out of the bottom desk drawer. I toggled the radio. “Al, come in. We got a problem. Wake up, Al!” I shouted into the radio as I ran. The radio screeched static and white noise. “Al, I need you at work. Big trouble.” The radio hissed and popped, and abruptly turned off.

The night seemed alive as I ran to Building 8. The trees outside the facility swayed in a brisk wind, their leaves clattering like faint mocking laughter. I felt eyes on me, and the sense of things around every corner, waiting. My scars began to lightly itch, as if I had run through cobwebs.

I reached Building 8 to find the door tightly shut and locked. As I badged it open, I heard a scraping noise from behind me. I turned, hand on the pistol, to see Jen. “Is that blood?” she asked, pointing at a small spatter of spots on the floor just inside the door. I tapped a spot with my shoe, smearing it. “It’s too dark to tell from here. It could be … motor oil. Something like that. Look, you shouldn’t be in here. Go back to the office until I get back.”

“No way. I saw the tape. I saw what happened to Lewis. I’m going to get him, and you’re going to help me. Now.” She pushed past me and walked down the hall to the elevators. “Help me get this open.”

I opened the elevator, and we stepped inside. I thumbed the security code, and pressed the button for B2. “Stay behind me,” I said, drawing the pistol. I had no idea what I was doing, but I’ve played enough video games to know that the monster jumps out after the elevator doors open. I heard a faint click, and looked over to see Jen holding a small handgun.

“My dad got this for me last year. He was nervous about me hanging out downtown. Took me to the shooting range for a few months.” She passed a shaky hand over her face and through her hair. “Why the fuck is this happening? WHAT the fuck is happening? And why aren’t you scared?”

I snorted. “I’m terrified. I just peed on myself a little back there, in case you didn’t notice.” The elevator chimed, and the doors opened. “As for what’s happening, I don’t know. I have an idea, though, and I don’t think it’s good.”

I stepped into the corridor, checking both directions. The long, white hallways were bright, and quiet. I slowly walked down the hallway towards the storage unit where we had seen Lewis. At the corner, I saw a faint, reddish-brown smear. A fingerprint, or a thumbprint, as if someone had paused here, and touched the wall for support. Jen stared at it for a moment, but said nothing. I turned, and continued down the hallway.

There was a small spattering of blood on the floor in front of the storage unit. “It’s padlocked,” I said. “There’s no way he could’ve gotten in there, shut the door, and locked it from the outside.” Suddenly, my scars began to itch and throb, deeply, like acid on my face. I drew in a breath — and the lights went out. Jen screamed, and I heard a pop and a click and a clatter, and the lights came back on.

The padlock was lying on the floor, in front of the storage unit.

The bright, sterile white fluorescents at the far end of the hallway went dark. Then the next set turned off, and the next, the darkness growing closer to us in sections. A whispering, muttering sound filled the air. We unconsciously moved closer together, and backed towards the metal door of the storage unit. The lights went out again, and the darkness rushed in like some eager fluid.

Jen and I stood in the whispering dark, pressed together like orphaned children lost in an abyssal woods, for an untold amount of time, until the red emergency lights flickered into a murky life. Their blood-red glow did not so much illuminate as it did accentuate the shadows that pooled and swirled around us. The whispering grew louder, and louder, like a river of mumbling, tumbling voices, until it reached a roaring crescendo, and then stopped. The storage unit’s door slowly rolled open.

Lewis was there, sitting on the floor. He was facing away from us, crouched and still.

“Lewis!” Jen exclaimed, and tried to run forward. I grabbed her by the arm.

Lewis spoke, his voice somehow horrible, drifting up and rattling around the steel walls. “They … made me come here. They want people to know. They made me … see.” He made a deep sobbing, choking sound. “I didn’t want to see. But they made me.”

My eyes, slowly adjusting to the light, began to make out the shapes in the storage unit, stacked against the walls. Lewis’s arm reached out to the nearest oblong, shrouded shape, and pulled. It tumbled to the concrete floor, making a horrible dry husking sound as it hit. A desiccated, shriveled arm fell out of the shroud.

Lewis began to stand, and began to laugh. He turned his mangled face towards us, and stared at us with the deep, black, gouged out sockets where his eyes had once been. “They showed me! They made me see! But I don’t have to see any more!”

Jen shrieked, and recoiled into the hallway. I had the gun trained on Lewis, its grip slick in my shaky hands. The whispering roar was back, rattling the steel walls and doors. With a sickening lurch I realized that all of the units’ doors were sliding up, and their neatly-stacked contents were all falling, sliding and tumbling to the floor. The sickly-sweet stench of decay that the state-of-the-art ventilation systems had masked so well before was now overpowering, filling the air.

“Bodies! They’re all … full of bodies!” Jen screamed, hands on the side of her face, eyes huge and shining in the red light, wrenching her black hair, gun forgotten on the floor.

I grabbed her by the shoulders, shook her once. “RUN.” I shouted, and dragged her away from the bodies, down the corridor, trying desperately not to hear Lewis’ mad laughter. I tripped over a smaller corpse sprawled in front of the unit near the corner, and slammed into the opposite wall. I looked down for a moment, and saw a white bridal veil covering a small child’s withered corpse. I shook my head and staggered to the stairwell door. The whispering was now a full roar, rage-filled voices howling, shaking the security door. I fumbled my badge twice, finally got it, punched the code, and hauled open the door. I grabbed Jen by the arm and dragged her up the stairs.

The lights in the stairwell were all wrong, flickering and tilting crazily. I realized my face was wet as I reached the B1 landing. There was not much of a ground-level landing left. As Jen and I crawled out of the stairwell, we saw that most of the UStore facility was gone. A few portions of buildings were still standing, but we were otherwise in a field of desolation and destruction, as if the whole block had been mulched.

Later, I learned that even though tornados were common for that area, the one that leveled the UStore facility was uncommon in both its fury and its brevity. NOAA reported a small, high-intensity cell appeared directly above the facility at about 6:30 A.M., spawning a slow-moving tornado that rated as a F3. The tornado encompassed the storage facility, and stayed in effectively the same spot for a full fifteen minutes, until moving in a generally north-east direction for about a mile. It appeared to have left the ground for most of its travel, touching down once again in a neighborhood to the north-east of UStore, before dissipating completely by 7 A.M.

They found Al’s body, or the remains of it, in the top of a tree two counties over, three days later. The coroner’s report stated Al had died of heart failure. It appears he had a massive heart attack before the tornado got to him.

Officially, the UStore facility was being used for the illegal storage of corpses that were to have been cremated or buried by certain unnamed funeral homes. The fact that those funeral homes were never officially named, and the case was quickly filed away in the darkest, dustiest cabinet available to the Birmingham Police Department did not make the news. Of course, the scariest part about the whole situation seemed to me to be the way that even after a freak tornado revealed thousands of unidentified corpses, stacked like cordwood inside an absurdly well-secured and well-cooled storage facility in a relatively large city, people just seemed to forget about it. As if they wanted to forget. Or didn’t want to know.

I didn’t see Jen again afterwards. The cops were initially Very Interested in me, as I was apparently the only living employee of UStore, Inc., that they could locate. They kept me in jail for nearly a week, without pressing charges, before I started making noises about attorneys. For the first few days, I was completely fine being behind bars. Those bars would keep things out, as well. I overheard them say that Jen had been committed to a psychiatric ward, due to her story, and her insistence that her boyfriend was trying to kill her. She had become violent, and attacked one of the officers questioning her.

Lewis was never found, and neither was his body.

The other thing I overheard, the thing that made me decide to leave the jail, was about UStore’s owners. It seems there weren’t any. The whole operation was owned by shell companies, and the cops couldn’t track down the original owners. Eventually, they stopped looking. I knew that somewhere, some person, or some group of people, arranged to have that storage facility built, and to have it equipped for a specialized purpose. I knew that someone had to be responsible for those bodies being there, and I suspected that someone was responsible for those bodies being dead in the first place.

Thousands of people disappear in this country each year. I may have found some of them. What keeps me awake at night, more than the dreams, or the sounds outside my window, or the itching of my scars, is wondering how many more storage facilities are out there.

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The Stairs and The Doorway

The Stairs and The Doorway
I don’t feel like I’m a nosy person. No more nosy than the next guy. I just have what my Ma would call an unhealthy amount of curiosity. I was the kid who climbed to the top of the big oak in the back yard, just to see what was in the crows’ nest. I was the kid who dug a hole in the back yard so deep that I hit groundwater because I was convinced there was a cave under our house, and I wanted to see it. To see.

My folks aren’t dirt poor, but they’re pretty close. They’re part of that missing middle of America, the people who work forty hours a week until they die, with no savings to speak of. I got my first job at a horse stable when I was fourteen. It didn’t last very long. I knew I needed to get a job, because I knew we needed the money, so I bounced around for the next few years, washing dishes, waiting tables, until I graduated high school.

Pop was really tough on me about college. He never went — nobody in his family had — so there were a few fights about where I would go after school. It was a huge shock to me when, just after graduation, he drove me down to the Uni. He’d been classmates with the Dean and they’d come up with an arrangement where I’d get a full scholarship, provided I made good grades and worked for the University.
I never felt like a scholar. In high school, I kept my head down and did enough to get by, pulling off B’s and a few C’s. I wasn’t interested in learning, because learning wasn’t interesting. Uni was different. I took mainly core classes, math-English-history-science, but they were fascinating. For one thing, nobody cared if I showed up or not. It was entirely up to me to succeed, so I did.
In exchange for my education, I worked security and did some light maintenance duties. Maintenance was a no-brainer. I’ve always been handy, and most of the fix-it jobs were the type that could be solved with a liberal application of WD-40, or elbow grease, or both. Security was a different story. Security gave me super powers.

The job itself was pretty easy. I got a uniform, a badge, a flashlight, and Ma gave me some keychain mace for my birthday. No, I didn’t get a gun — they weren’t allowed on campus anyway. I worked mostly nights and weekends, and doubles during long holiday breaks. I was to walk around the full campus twice in a night, checking the labs, computer center, and library. The rest of my time was pretty much my own.

There were two other guards, Jake and Al, but they worked different shifts from me. We had “overlap nights” on Wednesday nights, where we’d get together for about an hour to discuss any major events or changes. There might have been some beer at those meetings, but I’m underage, and you can’t prove anything.

Jake worked mostly dayshift, and Al worked swings and some overnights during the week. Jake was a younger guy, training to be on the local police force, so he took his job pretty seriously. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure Al mostly slept during his shifts. Al was two years older than dirt, so he deserved his rest.

Remember that bit about super powers? My first night on the job, Al gave me a huge keychain with about a thousand keys on it. It weighed nearly five pounds, and was secured to my belt with a heavy-duty metal chain. “Don’t lose that keychain, kid,” Al said. “You got the keys to the kingdom right there. Any door that don’t open, you don’t want to go in it.”

My work hobby, the thing that kept me awake on those long cold winter break nights, was exploring. I made it a point, every night, to open some door that I’d never opened before. I started in the new section, where the library and computer center were, opening each room, each closet, making a map in my head of where everything was. Some nights I might explore two or three rooms. Some nights I might not have time for anything more than an odd, out of the way broom closet.

The Uni is actually a pretty large campus, for having a full student body of only twelve or thirteen hundred. It was built as a Methodist college in 1896, and became state-owned in the thirties. There were three main sections. The ‘Old School’ housed the Administration offices and a few unlucky classrooms —unlucky due to the lack of central heat and air, and the three-story building had no elevators. The ‘Labs’ were a Brutalist horror of poured concrete slabs and tiny windows, built back in the 70s when buildings that looked like Soviet radiators were in style. The “New Library” was steadily losing its “new”, built in the late 90s boom, and made in that unique red-brick-and-glass style like everything else during those years.

When I think back to those early days, those days before, I think how stupid I was. How naive. I should have thought about winter. I should have thought about the solstice.

By December of my sophomore year of college, I had cleared every room in the New Library. I had opened every door, checked every closet, and had a good mental map of the whole building. It was, ultimately, pretty unimpressive. I found no buried treasure, no secret stash of missing computer supplies cached in a forgotten closet. I did find a small, sweaty stack of bad porno mags in a supply closet in the basement level. “Wicked, Wicked Cowgirls.” Who was I to judge?

December is a slow time for the Uni. After the mad rush of Finals, the campus was suddenly deserted, the remaining few staff seeming lost. The buildings stood silent, and dark, in the thin winter breezes. We had a steady series of snowstorms, but none bad enough to close the campus. I made sure the sidewalks were clear and the entryways salted, and otherwise tried to stay indoors.

Besides, I had the ‘Old School’ to explore.

The main ‘Old School’ building, Downing Hall, was a four-story V-shaped building. It had no elevators, tiny stairwells, and was only exempted from ADA compliance due to its “historical importance”. It had no air-conditioning, save for sporadic window-mount units that were only permitted to be installed on the rear of the building, so as not to spoil the building’s historic charm. The building’s heat came from a massive, ancient boiler in the basement. As far as I knew, Al was the only person who knew anything about the boiler, and he must have kept it in good shape, because I never heard of any complaints about it.

I spent the second week after Finals Week poking through the top floors of Downing Hall. I didn’t have a lot of time for exploring every night, as the snow gave me more than usual upkeep chores, but I made steady progress. I discovered a small room in the attic on the Left Wing that must have been an old Dean’s office, complete with a beautiful antique desk and wardrobe. I checked both, thinking I might find something “historic” to give to the Dean, but the wardrobe was empty save for a moth-eaten wool scarf, and the desk’s contents were limited to a few old newspapers and some tax forms from the 1950s.
A level below, on the building’s fourth floor, I found two dozen small, empty classrooms. In my handyman mindset, I checked the windows for loose glass panes, and for water or rodent damage. I fully expected to see rat-droppings, or at least some insect damage, but I found none. The second and third floors were much the same, except the rooms on the rear of the building were air-conditioned and thus actively used for classes when school was in session.

The main floor was Administration, and included the Dean’s office. I thought it wise not to snoop around in my boss’s office, or in Payroll, so I skipped a lot of these rooms. I made my way to the stairwell to the basement, used my superhero keychain, opened the heavy door and went down.
The basement of Downing Hall was different from that of the New Library. For one thing, it was a lot more cramped. The hallway was narrow, and the ceiling was low, with doorways leading off at regular intervals. I checked every room, flipping the old two-button switches to ON, using my flashlight on the dark corners. I had carried a few packs of spare light bulbs — the fancy new CFC bulbs — in my satchel, thinking to replace any that had burned out, and save the environment while I was at it. The little rooms mostly contained junk — spare desks, filing cabinets full of forty- and fifty-year-old papers, old holiday decorations, and so forth, lit by naked hanging bulbs.

I’m not an imaginative kind of guy. I guess I’m pretty smart — I’d made straight A’s in my college courses. It never occurred to me to be scared. I didn’t think, “I’m alone in a creepy old basement.” This was my place, my job, my hobby, and it all seemed so normal.

By the night of the 20th of December, I had made my way to the boiler room. The furnace was a massive monstrosity of iron and rivets, pipes and gauges. It was hellishly hot in that room, and equally loud. It was, however, neat and very clean. Al kept it that way, because he said “a clean boiler lets you get more shuteye.” The furnace had been converted from coal to gas at some point, but the soot had stained the walls of the room, and the old coal chute still opened in one of the corners.
I had no intention of giving the boiler room more than a glance — I’d been there dozens of times, and there was nothing to see, just a workbench and the furnace itself — when I noticed a small door to the back and left behind the furnace. “That’s weird,” I thought to myself. I had never seen that door before. But then again, I had never stood in that particular spot, beside the workbench, and I had never really looked.

The door was smaller than a normal door — maybe five feet tall, painted in the same non-color drab grey-brown of the walls, and was made of metal, just like the other doors in the basement. I went over to the door, and touched the handle.

I think the body knows sometimes when things are wrong. Have you ever had that feeling, like you’re being watched? When you know you’re totally alone, and nobody can see you, but you feel eyes on you? Have you ever gone left instead of right, because you got a feeling that you just shouldn’t go to the right today? It didn’t work that way for me. When I touched that doorknob, nothing felt any different. My head didn’t hurt, my neck-hairs didn’t stand up, and I didn’t hear an inner voice saying, “Don’t do it!”

The doorknob turned, but the door wouldn’t open. I looked more closely, and saw a small keyhole. I checked my magic keychain, and found three possible matches. Struck out on the first two, and the third worked, of course. Of course.

The hinges squealed like they hadn’t been used in a long time (decades.) My handyman instincts noted it. “WD-40,” I mumbled. I hauled open the door and stepped through, into another small, cramped hallway. The light switch worked, and the single bulb blew with a crack! “Dammit!” My hackles did raise then. I flicked on my flashlight, and quickly swapped out the hallway bulb with a new one. I looked around, and saw this hallway was narrow, straight, and ended a few yards away at another door.
That door opened easily, onto another stairway. “What the hell?” I said. Nobody had ever mentioned a sub-basement for this building. The hairs on the back of my neck were still standing out. I shook it off as nerves from the blown bulb, and walked to the stairwell. It was a standard stairwell, and looked pretty much the same as the others in the building. I walked to the bottom, and met another door. I pushed through it, to see another long, narrow hallway, with doors leading off to either side at regular intervals.

The first door to my left was unlocked, and opened fairly easily, onto a storage closet. There were stacks of late Sixties-era books, a few desks, and a decaying mop in its bucket. The door across from it was unlocked, but did not open so easily. I hauled the door open to find a larger room that looked to have been used as a classroom. There were desks, a blackboard, anatomical diagrams, and posters on the walls. Everything was covered in an inch of dust, and appeared to have not been touched in a long time. “Why would anyone put a classroom down here?” I mumbled to myself, “How would they even convince students to get down here in the first place?” I remember thinking, at that point, that I must have somehow discovered a back way into the other wing of the V-shaped Downing Hall. “Maybe this is where the old Science classes were held, before the Labs were built.”

I moved on to the next set of rooms. They were both classrooms, abandoned, dust-covered, and mostly empty. So were the next pair, and the next. I saw a total of twelve disused classrooms in that hallway, and a small breakroom, complete with a lonely coffee pot. I also found two small restrooms. I didn’t spend much time checking them out, as the lights didn’t work and I didn’t feel like replacing those bulbs. I found myself getting slightly nervous — I was in a strange section of the campus, and I was working alone that night. In the back of my mind I just couldn’t truly justify the existence — the waste — of a whole floor full of unused classrooms.

When I got to the end of the hallway, I met another steel door. I opened it, and saw another stairwell. I was fully expecting this stairwell to go up, to connect to one of the other main stairwells in Downing Hall. The stairs only went down.

This was the point, I remember, at which I began to get scared.

“No way. There’s no way these stairs go down. How would anybody get down here?”

“Here. Here. here,” the stairwell echoed at me.

I should have checked the time. I should have been concerned with finishing my rounds. I should have been hungry for lunch. I should have run.

I started to climb down the stairs.

This stairwell was unlit, and appeared to be much older, and in much worse condition than the others. It was also longer. Much longer. After a few minutes of walking down the steps, I began to count them. At every twelve steps, there was a small landing, a turn, and another set of steps. Down. After ten landings, I reached another door. It was unlocked, and opened easily. The hinges squealed, and the echoes died like lost things in the dark.

I groped against the left wall for a light switch, and there was none. I checked the right, and the wall was equally smooth. I cast the flashlight around, but saw nothing. Nothing forward, nothing to either side, and nothing above. I snapped my fingers, listening for the echo. I may or may not have heard one. I slowly came to realize that the room into which I had entered was enormous, cavernous, possibly the biggest room I had ever physically experienced. I shrank back to the doorway for a moment.

“This room can’t be here,” I said to myself. I started to think about going back. But I also started to think about wanting to know what was in there. I took a step forward, and another, until I was walking steadily into the room. I kept a steady pace, counting my steps. I looked over my shoulder every few yards, using the light from the open doorway to orient myself. I walked, slowly, for a hundred yards, two hundred yards, until I saw a dim glow ahead.

The glow got faintly brighter and larger as I walked toward it. Another hundred yards, and another, and three more passed until I could make out a small dim light bulb near a door.

That door was of a different type entirely. It was huge, fourteen feet tall at least, and half again as wide. The surface was black metal, studded with rivets and bolts, mounted on huge hinges. Across the face of the door, graved into the metal, were words in some strange looping script that I could not recognize. Every surface was carved with that script, or with strange diagrams made of splayed circle-ended lines. In the center of the door was a large spoked wheel lock, and in the center of the lock was a tiny keyhole. Above the keyhole was a sigil, enclosed in three circles.

I looked behind me, and could not see the light from the stairwell. I couldn’t see anything at all.
I held the Superhero Keychain to the dim light, and flipped through the keys. Of course, there was one small, battered key that looked as if it might fit. I inserted it into the lock, and turned it. I heard a click, and a thud, and a sound from within the door like pouring pebbles. Or dry teeth.
I pulled the key from the lock, and grasped the spokes of the wheel lock. My heart was racing, and sweat was dribbling into my eyes. I turned the spokes to the left, counterclockwise —widdershins, some buried memory in my head said — and kept turning, until the wheel stopped. There was another THUD and a CRACK, and then silence.

The darkness behind me no longer felt empty. In fact, it felt positively crowded, as if I had an audience, watching me. I stepped back from the door and flashed my light around. Still nothing. Dry empty floor. I turned back to the door, grasped the large cast-iron handles, and pulled. Nothing. I tried harder, putting all of my weight into the pull, and at the last moment, at the end of my strength, I heard another CRACK! and the door groaned open on a draft of cool, stinking air.
The smell was heavy, moist, and musky. I had a flash memory of my mother taking me to the zoo as a child, and the smell of the Cat House, with the lions. At the thought of the lions, I let go of the handles and stumbled back a bit. I carefully shone my light into the yawning black crevice of the open door. I saw a short hallway that opened into a small, cramped room. I saw a filthy, rusted metal chair. I saw bones. Small bones. I saw — or heard, or smelled — a form so black it seemed to suck in the light of my flashlight. I saw a black form rushing towards me, running towards me, filling the hallway, howling and laughing and speaking, in a voice that sounded like mountains collapsing.
I remember fangs, and words that turned my bones to rusted glass. I remember feathers, and a hand with too many fingers, jeweled with something unspeakable. And the smell, the stink of something long caged.

I remember wings.

I don’t know how long I wandered in the dark, alone under hundreds of feet of rock. There was no light. There was no way to judge time. My flashlight was dead, and my cellphone, and even the small specks of luminescent paint on my cheap wristwatch were dark. There was something wrong with my right leg. It hurt, but I couldn’t see enough to find out why.

I kept hearing my audience, there in that cavernous room. I screamed at them. I felt one of them touch my face, and I threw my flashlight at it. The flashlight bounced and rattled and became still, somewhere that I was not. Something laughed, later. I raved and screamed but didn’t throw anything else.

I found the doorway after hours or days of crawling.

There were no lights in the stairwell.

After years of climbing, I crawled into that first forgotten hallway. I sliced my fingers on the crushed remains of the light bulbs I had packed in my satchel. I crawled down the hallway, and reached the next stairwell. I hauled myself up them, and finally out into the boiler room.

When I staggered out of Downing Hall, two full days after going in, it was into dim winter daylight and a full police presence.

Five people had been found dead on and around the campus. All had been brutally, savagely murdered, bodies splayed open, viscera missing. The teeth marks suggested a wild animal, but the murder scenes and body positioning also displayed a certain intelligence to them. There was also the writing, carved into the flesh when it was not yet dead meat. The cops wouldn’t talk about the writing.

The cops wouldn’t talk to me, either. Not afterwards. When they first saw me stumble out into daylight, covered in blood, they assumed I was the perpetrator. They quickly changed their assumptions when the medics pointed out the greenstick fracture, the dehydration, the concussion and the obvious shock. The cops asked a lot of questions, and I answered as best as I could. I told them about the door in the boiler room. They couldn’t find it. They showed me the bare smooth wall from where I had crawled, dazed and broken. My tracks stopped at that wall. Two cops tried breaking through the wall in that spot, only to meet old brick, and older earth past that.

The cops wanted to know where the long, black feathers came from, stuck to my clothes by dried blood. I didn’t know. I didn’t want to know.

The cops, the medics, nobody, would look at me any more. The scars on my face, the deep, gouged-out writing, was not a sight that most would want to see. I was marked.

Whatever I had let out, whatever had killed and eaten five people, and a week later six more, had marked me as a friend.

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