The Moon Maiden

Selena focused on keeping her breathing even; in, out. She squeezed through a crevice barely large enough to fit a corgi, keeping her helmet light off so she didn’t accidentally blind herself with reflected light. She wiggled with her arms stretched out above her head so she could read the LCD display on her wrist monitor. Breathe, breathe. 

Her belt snagged on something.

Selena paused, cursing her lack of foresight in failing to remove it earlier. She couldn’t now, the passage was too narrow to snake one of her arms back to her body. She would have to crawl back up the ever-narrowing tunnel for nine meters to find a place wide enough to do so.

“How’s it going?” her earpiece crackled. Her telecom line ran alongside her tether, the umbilicus that kept her (for lack of a better pun) grounded.

Selena inhaled and rotated her body 90 degrees. The snag released.

“Slow and steady. How do my numbers look?”

“Just try not to hyperventilate, alright? You’ll be fine. Tell me when you get visual.”

Selena squirmed down into the rock, blind, feeling her way with her toes. When she found she could kick her feet freely she nearly sobbed in relief. There was no solid foothold below, there was just nothing beneath her. She used her tether to rapel twenty feet into the darkness.

She touched down into a small corridor where she could stand at ¾ height, which was at least an improvement. This fed out into a greater area of darkness, one she finally risked clicking on her helmet light for.

The light was fed back to her in many twinkling little dots, like thousands of insects. Selena’s breathing became uneven

“Selena? Your heart rate just jumped.”

Selena forced herself to calm, taking slow, steady drags. “I’m alright. I just…I was startled. I think I’ve arrived.”

Selena set up her lantern, which threw a friendlier light over the place. Untold millions of tiny crystals winked back at her, crusting every surface. The cave was a garden of minerals, its crop growing slowly and steadily over time, unaided by any human hand.

“So you see them?”

“I do. It’s crazy. I never dreamed they’d coat every surface so completely, it’s like the cave’s been frosted.”

“No, do you see them?”

Selena didn’t know what to answer for a moment, not until she turned and nearly tripped on a skeleton laid out near her feet. The crystals grew over every bone, it looked like a macabre coral.

Selena took a shallow breath. “Yes…I see them.”

“You’ve made it to the moon cave. Well done, Selena. You’re probably the first person to lay eyes on this place in a few millennia.”

“Right, if we’re discounting the McKenzie expedition.” Selena accidentally brushed an elbow against the wall and yelped. The tiny crystals were sharp.

“Right, sorry. I wasn’t thinking. I know your sister would be happy to know you made it, even if she didn’t.” Her earpiece went fuzzy as she pulled up some slack on the umbilicus. “Do you see anything?”

“Give me a second.” Arms out for balance, Selena sidestepped a pit with no visible bottom.

The lantern’s rays refracted from every surface, carrying the light farther than it might have traveled otherwise. Now she could see the skeletons, disguised by the crystal growth so that they blended into the rock. 

Sweat greased her skin, making the neoprene suit scrunch uncomfortably. It was hot in this cave. Hot and hard to breathe.

“Want to hear a ghost story while you work? The tribe that worshipped in this cave walled off the original entrance they used to get to the place. We figure that’s what the McKenzie group might have tried to do, they tried to reopen the way and, well…I won’t go further into that. Sorry.” 

Selena kept her breathing tight. “Keep going. Tell me about them.”

“Well, they called this place the ‘moon cave’ and they sacrificed people to prevent some kind of end-of-the-world scenario. Sometimes it was someone raised for that specific purpose.”

Selena glanced to the side. A lot of the skeletons were under four feet tall. “I see.”

“Well, anyway, they stopped, and not long after they got wiped out by European disease. So in a way I guess they were kind of right. Tell me when you get to the moon maiden.”

“How will I know her?”

“You’ll probably know when you see her.”

Selena almost replied that the bones were laid out fairly uniform, only a few were garlanded with calcified flowers or cloth studded with crystal growth, but then she saw the extreme end of the room. A flicker drew her eyes to a small alcove, as if it were lit by candle. She drew closer and realized no, it was crystals that towered over their tiny brethren like beacons. And in the middle…

Selena drew a deep breath. 

The moon maiden was dressed in reed clothing decorated with indigo patterns. A crown of tiny pink flowers adorned her skull, heavy silver and turquoise jewelry adorned her body. She had clearly been given a place of distinction, surrounded by a mandala of sea shells and bits of semiprecious stone. Selena examined the larger crystals that ringed her body. They looked like they had been plucked from another crystal bed of much older growth and deliberately cultivated around the body. The whole effect was quite tender and worshipful, if you ignored the braided silver wire binding the girl’s wrists and ankles.

“Selena? Selena come in.”

Selena jolted back to herself. “I’m here. I’ve found her, she’s absolutely lovely.”

“Oh good.” Mission control sounded relieved. “Sorry, when you go silent—”

“I know, you don’t have to apologize to me.” Selena played her light around the body. “No anchors, no dig-marks, not even a urine bottle. I don’t think Oriana ever made it down here.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. I don’t think discovering my own sister’s body would make today any better.” Selena popped a goggle so she could wipe away a tear. 

“It was a mistake sending Oriana down there. I’m sorry.”

“Hey, we both knew the risks getting into this life.” Selena propped her flashlight so she could make some adjustments on her oxygen mixture. “I know wherever she is is just as good a headstone as we could have given her on the surface.”

“Yes, but she was the wrong fit for this journey, and I think even she knew that. I think she went to spare you from making this trip.”

“Yeah, but I made it, didn’t I?” Selena’s laughter hit the crystal walls and was perforated into nothing by the thousands of needle-sharp crystals.

“I’m sorry. Anyway, to finish up my anecdote, they called it the moon cave because the moon was their ruling celestial body, not the sun. They kept a lunar calendar and favored silver over gold because it resembled moonlight. How are you settling in?”

Selena laid out a waste disposal bag as a cushion and sat on it. It still felt like sitting on a porcupine. “Fine,” she laughed, “I feel like I’m in god’s waiting room.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Look, you don’t need to keep apologizing for jokes, I’m fine.”

“I’m sorry,” the voice that crackled over the earpiece sounded thinner. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”

The hair on Selena’s neck raised. “Look, we need to talk about the return. The bend at the daisy-chain caves is going to be a little tricky to navigate backwards.” Radio silence. “Hello? Am I coming in alright?”

A sudden hissing sound made her jump up from her seat. Her imagination went wild as she darted the beam of her flashlight to all the corners of the room, trying to reason that nothing but crystals grew comfortably at this depth. Her heart nearly stopped when she caught sight of a rapid, undulating movement. She pointed her flashlight and found the crevice she’d come through.

Cable, hundreds of yards of cable slithered down into the room, as if…

Selena hyperventilated as she hit buttons. Her earpiece was dead. Her wrist monitor was dead. “Hello? Anyone, hello? Come in! Come in right now!”

The end of the cable hit the floor, severed neatly. The sight of it kicked on her fight-or-flight response, and flight won.

She clumsily put her foot through a skull and fell, catching her body painfully on her elbows and knees. The crystal pierced the neoprene of her suit. She drew back, trying to right herself, and knocked the lantern over. Now it was dark except for her helmet light, which danced spasmodically over rock as she panicked. She sucked in sharp breaths, which did not give her body or brain adequate oxygen to function. She stumbled drunkenly through the cave, feeling surfaces for any kind of opening. She tripped and her helmet went this time, the light along with it. This had an oddly calming effect. She went slower now, feeling her way. The prick of the crystals had become background noise by now.

Her fingers hit an irregularity in the rock. She felt a foot bone bound by wire. She was back at the moon maiden. 

Selena turned and lay on her back. The crystal did not hurt now that her weight was evenly distributed, almost like a bed of nails. She laughed deliriously.

In the absence of light, she started hallucinating a pale glow. No, as the glow grew stronger, she realized it was not the Ganzfeld effect, the ceiling really was glowing. Thousands of worms descended now that the competing light was extinguished, lighting up their tails. To her oxygen-starved brain, it looked like the night sky.

Selena smiled. “Oh, it’s lovely, lovely,” were her last words.

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Found Footage

You can rewind, over and over, the eight seconds of footage that are the last known traces of Jim Olhurst, watch the shadow slowly leach into the image of a still forest. Creeping along a single frame at a time, you will see nothing special until roughly frame 90, when darkness appears where there was none before. The camera shakes. It is handheld, so the image does not remain stable from frame to frame. Tracking the shadow, therefore, becomes difficult. The shadow slips out of sight at approximately frame 180. The remaining frames gradually lose focus, the final still image is blurred beyond recognition.

You will not see anything that provides definitive evidence as to Olhurst’s disappearance. The footage (known as a short end in the film industry) was found in the trunk of Olhurst’s car.

Olhurst had driven to Folk County national park for the stated purpose of capturing Bigfoot on film. The man was a self-described cryptid hunter; he presented both a driver’s license and a business card with this title at the park gate. The only problem being that James Carl Olhurst was not a real person. The license was found to be a forgery, latent prints pulled from a discarded water bottle did not match anything in the system. For all intents and purposes, the man that entered the park did not exist.

An 87 Oldsmobile was found parked at the rest stop 90 meters from the Chinook trail. The car contained several blank note pads, a pack of water bottles with three missing, the aforementioned film in the trunk, and three stray rounds of ammunition. The car was registered to Emile Barry, a local resident, who had not yet even reported his car stolen. The keys in the ignition were a copy of Barry’s own keys, which he claimed to have misplaced only briefly at a supermarket earlier that week. 

The gate guard described Olhurst as “odd.” Said the man seemed smug about his entrance to the park, laughing condescendingly at park precautions. Folk county park has no real tradition of Bigfoot sightings, but it has come under increased black bear activity in recent years. Olhurst seemed unperturbed by the danger, replying that he hadn’t brought anything an animal would want. The gate guard found the statement suspicious. He also noted that Olhurst’s facial hair, a neatly-trimmed goatee, did not match the other hair on his head by a shade or so. He suspected drug-related activity and watched Olhurst’s journey from one of several trail cameras. Olhurst stopped just before a copse of trees and flicked on his car’s headlights in a strangely rhythmic fashion, as if signaling. Once past that camera the guard lost sight of him as Olhurst turned off the main road and onto a disused trail. Though he made effort to monitor the cameras, he never observed Olhurst taking the road that would lead him to the site where the car was found the following morning. It was as if Olhurst (or someone else) had simply driven the car out of the woods and parked it there, timing the action so it fell in-between ranger checks.

A three-day manhunt was organized, but turned up no leads. Bloodhounds given scent from the objects in the car lead detectives to a disused latrine. Superficial dredging turned up nothing. With no leads and no other clues to fall back on, investigation stagnated.

The film itself was taken into evidence and searched over, but revealed nothing helpful. One forensic specialist noted that the shadow was actually a burn on the frame, as if the figure being filmed emitted some kind of radiation that affected the exposure. After the investigation dead-ended, the film was stolen and leaked onto the internet, bringing about the second renaissance of the film’s life. Amateur detectives pored over the film, speculating everything from UFOs to Satan himself. Many claim to have found the stand of woods where it was filmed, none have provided definitive proof. Emile Barry sold his car after years of harassment, claiming he wished it had never been returned to him. The gate guard on duty when Olhurst entered the park has also since disappeared, presumed dead during a search-and-rescue mission for a toddler.

Eight seconds of footage are all that remain from a mystery that may never be solved. Eight seconds of something that could be but probably isn’t, eight seconds that may not have even been shot by Olhurst but now stand as his obituary, eight seconds as cryptic as the man himself.

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The Other Babysitter

If anyone had asked, of course, I would have said “no.” 

Not that anyone did. They never ask. They only say, “oh Julie can do it, can’t she?” And then nod like it’s all settled. Julie can do it, she doesn’t have an exam tomorrow. Julie can do it, she has no friends to go out with on a Friday night. Julie can do it, she doesn’t have a life.

Well I might have one if they actually let me. 

I don’t even like kids. You’re in highschool people think hey, you’ll babysit. You love kids, you’re a girl! 

Cynthia likes kids. It’s why the Mendackis hired her. She was their babysitter, not me. She should have done it. But oh no, not Cynthia Paulson, not pretty, popular Cynthia. She has Things To Do. Cynthia has a life because people can rearrange theirs to fit her schedule. And why not? She’s so busy working for meals-on-wheels, volunteering at the library, raising money for the school orchestra. She gives so much, it’s the least you can do to sacrifice a weekend to her.

I hate her. I hate her so much and she’s never even done anything to me.

It’s the Mendackis anniversary and the 4-H club party on the same Friday, shock, horror. I had plans, but since when has anything I want mattered? I don’t even get to bike over, the Mendackis live so far off the grid they might as well be pioneers. Their nearest neighbor is a mile away. Literally. I’ve checked.

You’ve heard this story before, haven’t you? I have. I hate it. I hate the cliche of the babysitter alone for the first time in a big, dark house, out where no one can come to save you in time. Of course it was storming when I got dropped off. Of course the power went out an hour into the night. Of course.

The kids weren’t bad kids. They weren’t good kids. They were just kids who knew I wasn’t Cynthia and didn’t respect me. They took forever to get to bed. By the time they conked out I had to do my bio homework by candlelight.

Have you ever been really, really aware of your own mortality? I’ll bet fishermen feel like this every time they look down at the water and see something big swimming just under the boat. That’s what I felt like right then. That patch of candlelight was my boat, and I was just sitting there, waiting for the wave. Being in someone else’s house after dark is the unfriendliest feeling I know. Maybe if you lived there, even slept there a couple of nights, you’d get to know the noises of the house. You could tell yourself those creaks are just the house settling, that there really is no one else up and around but you. I just sat there and listened. I couldn’t do anything but wait. Wait for what? I knew and didn’t know at the same time.

I don’t know why Cynthia called me. She didn’t have to. Maybe to rub things in. Maybe she was just paying lip service to fairness. She sounded surprised I picked up.

“Oh—how are things?” I finally found something she was bad at: acting.

We talked and it was awkward. Why wouldn’t it be? She’d never spoken more than five words to me at school. She had finished up at 4-H early. She said the magic phrase: “should I come over?”

I’m sure she expected me to say it was fine, go back home and forget all about little old me. Anyone else would have.

But I looked out at the dark house, all those creaks as it settled around me, and spoke her death sentence. “Sure, come over. That would be great.”

Cynthia didn’t need anyone to drive her, of course. She had a car. I had to wait tables to buy my own bike, but Cynthia gets a car handed to her the second the ink on her permit was dry.

I went upstairs to check the kids. Force of habit, I guess. The smell hit me first. The smell of…but of course, John Mendacki was a chemist, a bottle could have dropped somewhere. But the stillness, the stillness that you can feel through walls and floors, that wasn’t right. No kids are that still. Not when they’re still living. 

I stood at the end of that hallway, just looking into that dark. Every button they’d installed in me was telling me to check on the kids, be a good little victim now.

The bang startled me. It made a handy excuse, a sound was more urgent than sleeping kids. I found the dining room window cracked open, the shutter was banging in the wind. I shut and latched everything. In hindsight, it seems obvious how deliberate it was. If you forced your way into a house, you could easily make sure you weren’t detected right up until that last moment. But the window was cracked and the shutter was left to bang against the frame so I would know and start panicking.

I could see myself, like I was outside my own head. In a movie, maybe. Not me. I was walking through the house like I was on a preset track. Not me. I was looking into corners and crannies. Not me. I was the girl from a movie, just here to fill up time and space until I got killed.

The front door opening nearly gave me a heart attack. Cynthia called hello. Of course she had her own key. I’d been locked in, another detail I felt just great about. I could hear Cynthia walk down the front hall, calling for me, like I was a lost dog.

I almost called back. I don’t know why I hesitated that first moment, but I know what kept me quiet after that: survival instinct.

I let her wander through the rooms, calling, and I held my breath. I know you can’t hear an absence of sound, but I swear I heard someone else hold their breath.

You can do a lot of thinking in a short space of time. In two seconds, I could see the path I needed to take out of the dining room, past the old rotting shed, through the ditch (because only an idiot would run away through the fields, too open) into the pasture of raspberry bushes that had gone to seed.

Someone else did some calculations at the same time I did. They calculated who was the bigger target.

I told police I didn’t hear Cynthia scream when I ran. That’s a lie. I did. She screamed my name, like I could have helped her. Dummy. Or maybe she thought it was me attacking her, like I’d ever had the guts. I never had a chance to develop any. I just ran. I fell. I got up and ran some more. I got all scratched up on those berry canes, I even did a few on my face because when people asked what I’d been doing while Cynthia died, I had a handy visual aid. 

It was cold in those bushes. I was out there all night, because no one thought to look for me. They were more concerned with Cynthia and the kids. Maybe they just assumed I was collateral damage. They didn’t look happy to see me, like I should have been the one stabbed on the kitchen floor.  But I wasn’t. I was alive. Alive.

Of course you know how the story was told for weeks, years afterwards. The lone babysitter gets killed in the middle of the night by some psycho. They slowly wrote me out, of course. Two babysitters is too messy. I didn’t mind. I’m used to being forgotten, like what surely would have happened if I died. Girls were wearing black armbands until June for Cynthia, you think they would have done that for me? Me, who ran and hid like a coward when I should have fought the killer off? Don’t make me laugh. They all wanted the story

The Mendackis moved away. Cynthia’s parents tried to tough it out, they were even at the ceremony when the school dedicated a bench to their daughter, but they were out by fall. Little by little, the story dried up until it was something that had happened somewhere else, to people no one knew firsthand. Cynthia was a ghost, just a character who was too good to be real so that people would be sad when she died. My scars healed and I became just another nobody again, just a placeholder for something more important.

…but no one made me babysit ever again.

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Martin Bremner’s Journal

Martin Bremner died by his own hand July 16th, 1937. He was survived by his wife and two of his five children. He did not keep a journal, nor did he leave a suicide note. The only clue as to his mental state at the time was a paper found in his army trunk.

Martin had fought in the first World War, more specifically the Somme. He became separated from his squad in an area of France he could not identify and found himself traveling alone along a path of razed farmland.

The journal, set down in an uneven hand, is incomplete. There are spaces where the handwriting becomes increasingly shaky, only to start again in another paragraph in a steadier hand. Martin’s surviving son theorized it had been the result of many night’s effort; if there is any truth to the document then Martin may have been struggling with complex ptsd.

According to Martin’s journal he came upon another soldier dressed in a British uniform traveling in the same direction, though the cloth was so muddy and damaged he could not make out the regiment. The soldier wore a gas mask and helmet, as well as heavy gloves, so the only skin showing was his ears. 

After an exchange of shibboleths to ensure both were truly British and not German spies, Martin asked the soldier his name. The soldier said he would provide his name only when they became better acquainted. When Martin entreated him to remove the mask, the soldier said (perhaps in jest) he kept it on to protect his handsome face.

Martin was perturbed, but journeyed on with the stranger until night fell. They lit a small fire and Martin took out his rations, at which point the soldier proposed a game. They would use acorns as stand-ins in a competition much like jacks, and the winner would get the full complement of rations. Despite his misgivings, Martin found himself agreeing to the soldier’s jest. He did not want to, he wrote in the journal, but the soldier talked such a cloud over him he did not know which way was up.

The soldier won, and tucked the rations away in a pocket, promising to eat them later. Martin went to sleep hungry, not wanting to consume more food than was entirely necessary.

The next day they continued journeying, although Martin was busy dreaming up ways to extract himself from the soldier without drawing attention. Martin wrote that he knew if he tried to simply flee the soldier would once again bamboozle him into staying. He was disturbed at the stranger’s persuasive power, likening it to a knacker coaxing a horse into the slaughter-house. 

At noon Martin broke for rations, and the soldier once again proposed a game. Martin tried to refuse, but found himself once again competing with his nameless companion. This time it was Pinfinger, which earned Martin a deep cut on his left hand and no food. When he again produced rations for himself, the soldier suggested another game, so Martin remained hungry.

At this point, he had been without food or good sleep for some time. Martin wrote in his journal that perhaps he wasn’t in his right mind for the whole ordeal, but he was quite certain that the soldier he walked beside was not entirely human. The soldier seemed to know what he would do just before he did it, so there was no sneaking rations when his back was turned.

When they rested again that night, the soldier complained that his boots were hurting his feet and proposed another game. Martin found himself again in a losing competition. He spent the next day limping from the exposed hobnails in the other soldier’s boots.

All this time they had traveled entirely alone in the french countryside. Martin realized that they would have come across at least one human being after two day’s journey, and wrote that he began fearing for his earthly soul. He fantasized about braining the other soldier when his back was turned after another game cost him his canteen.

After yet again losing a meal to him, Martin confronted the other soldier, cursing him, telling him to begone from his life.

The solder laughed and said he would only leave after one more game.

The handwriting at this point becomes very shaky, with parts of the page rubbed nearly through as if Martin had begun to add more detail and then roughly erased it.

The soldier said they would gamble his life against Martin’s possessions, at which point Martin pointed out all the soldier had won from him already. The soldier said the wager would be against Martin’s future.

The text here is dotted with water stains, as if several drops of liquid had hit the page and were blotted away sloppily.

Martin played what he called “a cruel game” against the soldier, but did not leave it to the end. Instead he did what he had been aching to do for the past three days and hit the soldier with a heavy rock he snatched up from the road.

He found no resistance. The solder crumpled to his knees and then fell, his clothes flattening out entirely as if there had never been a body within them.

Martin’s journal glossed over how he returned once more to his regiment, only that he wandered insensible for days until he was found and taken to a military hospital. No one, not his wife nor any of his children, would learn what happened to him in that time, or what had become of the three fingers missing from his left hand.

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Tone Problem

Clarissa flashed her badge to the desk guard as she strode in. In one hand was a full-size skim milk latte, the other was tucking her pepper-spray back into her purse. She got buzzed in. They’d had another workplace incident last week, security was still tight.

Kyle and Shawn were huddled by the vending machine. She attempted to walk by, looking preoccupied, but kyle spotted her and waved. Clarissa reluctantly stopped in her tracks.

“Did you hear Kelly stroked out on last night’s shift? Boss was pissed they had to call an ambo.”

“Oh, that’s so sad,” Clarissa said, her face telling a different story.

“She heard the tone,” Shawn said, “she’s like the fifth person I know.”

Clarissa looked to Kyle.

“Oh, um, it’s—people are saying there are some numbers you call and—there’s nothing, just this sound. It kills you, um, I think.” Kyle shifted, looking down at his feet.

“So what, I shouldn’t call 666-6666?” Clarissa said jokingly.

Kyle shrugged. Shawn looked off just to her left at the empty air.

Clarissa considered chatting with them longer, they were the only people of her same age in the center, but Kyle was amphetamine-twitchy and asked for rides home if you stood still too long.

“Well,” she said, throwing another bend of scarf around her neck, “I’ll try not to wake Satan if I can help it.”

“Kelly had a fucking stroke,” Shawn said.

“I have student loans.” Clarissa hip-checked the door and waded into the cubicle farm that was the call center.

At her desk she donned a headset and situated herself. She sat up straight and tall (posture was important!) made sure her keyboard was the requisite distance from her chair as she logged in for the day.

She smiled as the first number rang. You could hear a smile in someone’s voice, her mother always said. 

“Hello,” she said, bright and chipper, “we would like to lower your credit rating—”

That number hung up, along with the next ten. Sometimes people would mix it up by throwing in a curse word before the dial tone, but 95% of her calls ended that way.

“Yes, hello?” the woman who answered the phone had a tight, high voice. Clarissa could practically hear the ‘I want to speak to your manager’ haircut. “I told you people months ago to put me on your do not call list.”

“So sorry ma’am, I’ll make a note of that.”

“See that you do.”

Clarissa smothered laughter as she put the number into the DNC spreadsheet, where it would stay for three months and then cycle out. She wondered why people even bothered; if your information had been sold once it was a safe bet it would be sold on many more times. Phone numbers came and went, spam was eternal.

35 calls in and she hit paydirt. The woman who answered was shaky and had a slight accent. Probably ESL.

“Is this about my son? His cards were stolen, I told police.”

“Of course ma’am,” Clarissa smoothly changed gears into authoritative mode. “We just need to verify that the info we have on file is correct.”

“Should I get his card?”

“Yes, please.” Clarissa tried not to sound too happy. There was a series of thumps as the phone made the journey pressed into the old woman’s collarbone, then more noise as she raised the mouthpiece again.

“Is it the card ending in 2159?,” the old woman said. 

“That is the card, now if you could just flip it over so you  can see the three-digit security code?” Clarissa patiently talked the woman through the process of revealing the card’s info. She even thanked Clarissa when she hung up.

Clarissa smugly made a note on her spreadsheet.

Fifteen cubicles down, a mild disturbance. Clarissa peeked up to find Kim had slid from her chair, a crowd forming around her. She gave it a moment’s thought. No more. Kim was a diabetic who refused to monitor sugars, this happened at least once a month.

Ten calls on, the man who answered was breathing heavily.

“Who the fuck do you people think you are?” he hissed into the phone.

“Well sir, I’m with the credit—”

“My son is dead, do you hear me? The person who owned this number is dead, there’s no credit rating to sort out.”

“My apologies, sir, we can only use what information they give us.”

“You people should be shot. I mean what kind of vultures prey on families like this? I know you’re not a real credit service because they don’t cold call a dead boy’s cellphone!”

“Well then, why is the number still in service if the owner is deceased?” Clarissa asked in her brightest tone.

A sharp intake of breath, like the burst of steam preceding a volcanic eruption.

“Have a nice day, sir.” Clarissa hung up and entered a note into her spreadsheet. She glanced up to find Miriam, the manager, glowering like a vulture from her desk. Clarissa shrugged. She’d been told off for terminating calls before (which ran against company policy) but knew they’d never write her up. Her numbers were some of the highest in the call center.

The next part of the hour was mostly unfruitful. She had halfway talked a young housewife into divulging info before suspicion kicked in and she hung up. Lots of answering machines, lots of cuss words shouted into the earpiece. One person just screamed into the receiver, so she had to crank down the volume.

Five minutes to the hour, when she was eyeing her e-cig, Clarissa dialed her last number on the page.

On the other end of the line, someone breathed heavy.

“Hello, this is the final attempt to reach you at this number. Your credit rating is—”

“Help,” A voice muttered. Thick baritone, kind of jowly. He spoke some distance away from the receiver. Doing some light-speed deduction, Clarissa surmised it was someone in the throes of a heart attack who had knocked the phone off the cradle in his thrashing. 

“You can reach us back at 273-5199,” she said, finger hovering over the disconnect button.

“Help,” the voice slurred. “I can’t—help.”

“Sir, if you’re having an emergency, I cannot dial an ambulance for you. Please hang up and dial 911 yourself.” 

“Help me,” he gasped. His voice distorted, it almost sounded metallic. “Help meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeEEEEEEEEEEEEEE—”

Clarissa’s finger reflexively stabbed the button. The note of his last plea hung in her ears, on and on, in a grinding whine. She took off her headset and wound a finger in each ear.

It wasn’t her first on-call death, not by a longshot. It wasn’t even the worst; that honor went to the man who asked for her name and then politely requested she call someone, because he was about to hang himself. Then did so.

But suddenly she felt achy and clammy, like some kind of unwanted transaction had just occurred.

She caught Kyle’s gaze from across the room. No. She couldn’t let this get to her. The monthly bonus would be hers and hers alone. Clarissa picked up her headset and tried to regroup.

“Hello.” She cleared her throat, a rookie move. “Hello, I’m with the credit services. May I ask who I’m addressing?”

A woman’s voice said something on the other end of the line, but the metallic tone had turned into tinnitus that strangled the words. 

“I’m sorry, what?” Clarissa cranked up the volume, which only added a brassy note to the nonsense. It was like listening to an untuned radio on a blown-out speaker. 

The caller hung up.

Clarissa rested her head in her hands. Her face felt hot, and her hands felt like they were swelling even though they looked normal to her eyes. Was there something in the air? Damn it, she better not be getting the cold that was circulating the office.

Shawn knocked on her cubicle wall, resting his elbows on the fabric-covered plastic.

“Hey,” he said, “how’s it going?”

“Fine,” she slurred. Her tongue felt thick.

Shawn looked at her with a canny expression she’d never seen on the habitual pothead’s face before.

“You okay?”

“I think I might be coming down with something.” Clarissa’s hand wend white-knuckled on her mouse. Miriam alighted from her desk, gargoyle-like, to break up this fraternization. Shawn looked to Miriam, then down at Clarissa.

“Know what I think?” he asked, bending down nice and low. 

Clarissa blinked. 

“I think washing dishes for 5.50 an hour is better than this. Peace!” He bellowed, throwing his call sheets up in the air like confetti. Miriam shadowed him out the building.

Clarissa’s head felt heavy. Just five more calls, she told herself, then she could take her smoke break, maybe call Ethan to bring her some theraflu. She would make it.

“Hellello,” she burbled to the next number. “I’m from the cledit servith. I’m calling to—”

“Who is this?” the voice, a male one, demanded. She could just barely make out the words if she strained. “Is this a prank? Terry, if this is you, go fuck yourself.”

“No, sir, I’m from the cledit—”

Dial tone. Clarissa made her finger move to the next number. Her tongue felt fuzzy. The room seemed to be dimming. She didn’t smell burning feathers, so it probably wasn’t a seizure, but she was in bad shape. Four more calls. Then— then—

“Hlello,” she managed. That was all. Dead silence on the line.

“Hello, who is this?” The respondent was a woman.

“Hlello,” Clarissa dropped bonelessly to her desk. Her headset fell askew but she couldn’t straighten it. Her limbs were pins-and-needles numb. “Hlep. Help. Help be, blease.”

“Help? I’m sorry, are you asking me to dial emergency services? Can you tell me where you are? Tell me your name, anything?”

“Hlelp,” Clarissa gasped. Her head slid off the desk, knocking her headset to the floor. Her co-workers glanced over walls and from behind monitors.

“Help me,” Clarissa rasped. Her own voice had a metallic edge to it. A few people gathered around her cubicle, expressions hungry, not helpful. She tried to wave them away, but none of her limbs obeyed.

“Help me. Help me. Help meeeeeeeeeeee—” her throat fell open, the metallic tone blaring from her throat on and on until everything was blackness.

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The Whistling Ant Mounds of the Sahel

John Peter Blanchet is a name unknown to modern entomology. He has never appeared in a textbook or peer-reviewed periodical, and his name is on precious few patents. The natural sciences have done their best to distance themselves from his brief but bizarre career and his untimely death. 

Blanchet studied general biology at Stanford before splintering off into his chosen field of study. Before his death lent him infamy, he was most well-known around the campus for enduring the sting of a Tarantula Hawk wasp, priming both his legend of foolhardy behavior and robust constitution. Despite his insistence on the title “Dr. Blanchet” there is no known evidence that he graduated.

In 1913, he journeyed to the Sahel in hopes of cataloging new insect species. Misfortune struck almost immediately as his camel came down with a strange swelling illness and he was stranded well shy of his ultimate destination. Dispatches from this period  show that he was prone to discovering species already cataloged in earlier missions. It wasn’t until a month into his tenure that he hit upon an insect that had not been seen in any scientific paper before or since.

Blanchet discovered mighty earth mounds in excess of ten feet in diameter near a watering hole. When wind passed over them, they whistled. At first he attributed their construction to the local Fula tribes, but upon inquiry he found they were home to what he dubbed “whistler ants.”

He described the ant as bearing several features atypical for the species. The first being that the ants produced a kind of silk from their mandibles. This was the backbone of construction for their earthworks; in several mounds he  pulled the loose soil apart to find it stitched in place by minute strands. The second was that they were capable of symbiosis surpassing even the aphid-milking ant. Blanchet wrote that the ants cohabitated with a species of beetle that would repel attacks from predatory birds. When marching abreast in the exterior world, other insects would allow the colony to pass unmolested, even species that typically predated on ants.

The entries of Blanchet’s scientific journal take on a more somber tone at this point. Blanchet wrote that he took a spade to one of the mounds, disclosing a series of “fat white maggots[…] far exceeding the size of the adult ants. Once exposed they let out a susurrus that upset the adult insects and drove birds from the sky.

It is speculated that Blanchet became increasingly demented by lack of fresh food at this point, because his claims became more and more fanciful. Blanchet wrote of feeling watched, and that the very wildlife itself was stalking him. He could not find a single source of water not crawling with Guinea worms, and flies overcame his mosquito netting. 

His last dispatch to the entomological society posited that the Whistler ants were unique in yet another way. What he had seen were not grubs of another species but a heretofore unseen phase of ant life. Like any other insect with a complete metamorphosis the ant had a larval, pupal, and adult stage. But, like a queen in any other social insect hive, certain ants were fed and transformed into an augmented stage of adulthood, in this case what he dubbed “overseers.” These ants produced pheromones that could mimic other species and get them to cooperate with the mound. What’s more, they were capable of problem-solving on a higher intellectual level than ever observed before. Blanchet promised he would send a specimen with the next post.

It never came.

Instead his diary passed through several hands before making its way back to his native California, along with the story of his unfortunate demise. It was said that Blanchet stumbled into a tribal gathering so inflamed he could not make noise. He had been stung by the Belanogaster juncea species so many times his body was swollen with venom. He died that night, and the diary was sent back to the entomological society.

Other missions have traversed the same area since, and report back no specimens bearing any resemblance to Blanchet’s writings. It is theorized that the ants, if they ever existed, were displaced by the livestock of the Fula tribe that now dwells in the area Blanchet camped, much as the Rocky Mountain locust in the American Northwest. It must be noted that this particular Fula tribe is the only one in the area to take up sedentary agriculture, as the rest are pastoral nomads. The Fulani control their cattle with a peculiar hollow whistle that they say was taught to them by “the old ones,” assumed to be an ancestral term as they are reticent in saying any more about it. 

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The Big One

Jodie mounted the hill, bamboo pole laid across his shoulders. One of Bill Drayer’s hired men saw him and his face split into a gap-toothed grin.

“Well m’boy,” he said, “goin’ fishing?” He laughed, bringing up phlegm.

Jodie nodded tightly, sparing neither words nor attention to the man. His pole was fashioned from a green stick of bamboo, some of father’s stout polyester line, and a hook he’d fashioned out of an anchor nail. The sinker was one of his grandmother’s earrings, it doubled as the lure.

Jodie set up near the pond on an apple box, cast his line, and waited.

Calling it a pond was too generous for anyone else but Jodie. It was a hole perhaps eight feet across at the widest, and it was generally held to be bottomless. Great-uncle Eli had fallen in back in the day, and they’d never found a single bone. To everyone else, this meant that the hole was a spring welling from an underground river, a dark current that only took life and didn’t shelter it.

Jodie knew better. He had always held gut feelings about fishing holes. He knew when the bait would be up, and he knew when something was in season. He knew there was something in the pond, and he would hook it. Oh yes, he would hook it right out of the water.

The bob spun lightly on the surface. The water was never still, it welled up from underground and seeped into the surrounding turf. The ground around the hole was marshy and soft, they said the treacherous footing had led to Uncle Eli’s demise.

Jodie had his sandwich at about eleven, along with a bottle of warm pop. The bob drifted like a dandelion seed.

Kelly Knudsen walked past the hole, gave him a glance. She stopped.

“You know there’s nothing in there, right?” she asked.

Jodie ignored her.

Kelly smirked and muttered something to herself. She would tell the other girls at school, and they would have a new name thought up by the time school rolled back around on Monday.

Jodie grit his teeth and looked at the water.

Around one in the afternoon he heard his father calling for him. He didn’t say a thing, not even after pop rounded the hillock that hid him from the rest of the farm.

“Been calling you boy,” he said, “why don’t you answer?”

Jodie set his jaw and looked at the line.

Pop followed his gaze. “Mrs. Hoenicker needs someone to hold the ewe for her, I said that someone would be you.”

Jodie didn’t answer.

“Get up. I gave you a job.”

Jodie looked at the dark water welling out of the earth.

Pop looked at Jodie for a long time. Then he left, shaking his head. “There’s nothing in there,” he called back to his son, “the only thing you’re catching is sun-sickness.”

Four o’clock rolled around. Five. Jodie relieved himself near the apple crate, eyes on the line, ready to spring if it so much as twitched.

Six. Seven. Mama called for supper from the house. Jodie stayed on the box. 

Eight. His older brother Harold came out, looked at him once, then left. His other older brother Jim came out, threw a rock, then left.

It was going on nine when the floater bounced. Jodie held his breath and watched it bob. Once, twice. It wasn’t a fluke.

Jodie took up the pole and got himself into a bracing position. Then he started to pull.

There was a rhythm to how fish fought the line. Part of Jodie’s gift was knowing that dance and giving it right back to the fish. 

He tugged the line and felt no give, as if it had hooked onto solid rock. But rock didn’t pull back.

Jodie laughed, exhilarated, as it fought the pole. He didn’t have time to wonder what kind of fish lived down there in the deep and dark, only that it was big, the biggest one of all. And he was going to hook it.

For an hour he danced, pacing the rim of the pond. When there was slack he pulled, when there was not he braced. The line would come back to him, then feed out again. He would tire the fish out, and he would pull it from the water. By god, he was going to catch it!

Water welled up from the hole, flooding the apple crate and his fallen lunch sack. He tread in the water, not feeling the cold. The sides of the hole started to bow upwards, as if something too big for it was trying to come through. Jodie whooped. He would pull the sod away by hand, he would widen the hole until he could pull his catch out, and then everyone would see.

With a clean jerk, the line was pulled into the water. Jodie went with it. There was barely a splash to mark his passage, and no one around to see. The water gradually seeped back into the hole, and the whole thing was neat again. 

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Even before he died, nobody ever walked through Tucker Bellows’ place. My ma said he’d come back from the war strange, but most older folks say he was always like that: stern, cold, about as pleasant as a kicked porcupine. That was just surface stuff, mind. Mutterings said he had some deep, dark secrets hidden around that farm, that’s why he bought all that military surplus over the years. Some kid dug up a rock from out by Tucker’s mailbox, after kicking it around a bit his gramps found it was an old mortar shell. 

Not as if you could say anything to him, either way. Half the time he would shut the door in your face…that is, if he didn’t mistake you for a census man and blow a hole in your knee. Man was quite particular about his privacy. Which is why no one knew the old goat was dead until three weeks out. Otis (the mailman not the one who works down by the gas station) found the circulars piling up in his box and brought them (carefully) to Tucker’s front door. After a whole lot of knocking and some cautious peeping, Otis come away and fetched the sheriff.

They busted that door down expecting a faceful of shot. Instead they found Tucker so far gone he’d melted into his favorite easy chair. It took months to clean out the place because everyone was so scared of booby traps. They were right to be afraid, Hank Murray near lost a thumb to some piano wire strung up in the cupboard.

Well, when all was said and done Tucker had no real close relatives, so the estate reverted to a grand-nephew from the next town. 

Bill Bellows had a simple mind. No one knows if it was illness or inborn, but he had to be guided in writing his signature on that line. The trust set up a grocery service for him, and after that he was left to his own devices.

Of course apples don’t roll too far from the tree, do they? 

As soon as he settled in, Billy took to popping out of the house the second he saw a living soul near his property. He’d run at them shouting “mine! Mine!” 

Any hope that we could use the place as a shortcut now that the old goat was dead evaporated. Billy didn’t seem to sleep much, and he had a sixth sense about anyone setting foot on his land.

Of course, he wasn’t near as frightening as his grand-uncle. That’s what Stan said anyway, and he dared more than any of us around that property. He’d toss apples up on the roof, walk through the ditches between the road and the fields, just to get a rise from Billy. We all told him it would end bad, but he shrugged us off.

I was privileged to be there the day all that boiled over like overdone potatoes. We were out walking. I laid eyes on those green fields just as Stan said,

“Boy, I bet we’d reach town but ten minutes faster if we cut through that place.”

I was only half-listening, and laughed. Stan took it as encouragement. He swung a foot over Tucker’s homemade barbed wire (deer teeth strung on bailing wire) and set down on forbidden soil.

I said his name and laughed a little.

Stan swung the other foot over. It had been a whole thirty seconds and no Billy, it made him bold. He took a couple steps forward and the door popped open. Billy stood on his stoop. You could see the cords bulging out in his neck.

“Mine!” he shouted, “mine!”

Stan repeated it back in a mocking voice. I didn’t laugh.

“Stan you’re makin’ him mad,” I said, too quiet. 

Stan took some more steps, put his hands in his pockets and whistled all casual-like.

Billy started across that yard, flailing his arms. For the first time I noticed how ropey his limbs were. He had no shovel or stick, but maybe he didn’t need one.

I made to step over the fence and snag Stan’s jacket. Stan strolled out onto the lumpy green field, smiling like there was nothing but him and the warm spring air.

“Mine!” Billy screamed. He ran faster, pinwheeling his arms. “Mine! Mine!” 

Stan, smug and smiling, set his foot down on a little hillock and blew into smithereens.

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So what, you’re saying I had something to do with Sylvester’s death? Like he didn’t off himself? That, my friend, is a laff and a haff. Look at you, waltzing in with that pretty little pistol—don’t wave that around in here!

…Okay. Fine. I lied earlier. I did see him that day. But it was nothing, man. Nothing.

I was at Josie Frank’s place, with Lyle. 

No, just Lyle. I wouldn’t lie about that.

Lyle’s in the corner doing his card tricks like they give discounts for wowing the crowd, meanwhile I’m in the corner trying to pick out this little brunette piece. I didn’t even know Sylvester was there until it was all over, swear to god. Sylvester was there looking for a girl, Bonnie or Maisie or something like that. You remember Josie’s gimmick, don’t you, where she had girls that looked like starlets? This gal looked like Lana Turner…well, Lana if she squinted a lot and had dumpy ankles. But hey, I’m not here to judge a dead man.

Well, I heard the scream from upstairs, and then the gunshot. Then Lana comes down the stairs with a hand to the blood on her dress—why are you pointing that at me, man? It’s the truth! I heard the scream and then the gunshot, not the other way around. I’ll swear on a bible, or that ugly book Sylvester was toting around.

…what? I knew what it looked like from afterwards, I didn’t see him come in. I didn’t go upstairs, who would run towards a gunshot?

Anyway, Lana reaches the bottom of the stairs and collapses, it’s pandemonium. Lyle grabs his girl’s hand and flees to the veranda, put a nice rip in his suit I had to explain to his wife later, and I make my way to the kitchen. That’s when I run smack dab into Josie. She must’ve slipped through one of those passages you hear about, the ones that peep in on all the bedrooms.

No, I didn’t know it was her. A madam does her job right, she doesn’t ever have to lay eyes on an everyday john, and vice versa. And Josie, well, she wasn’t in the best shape at the moment.

…what sigils? What do you mean, man? Stop dancing around the question and just ask me.

No I don’t know what a grimoire is. I didn’t see if Josie was holding the ugly book. All I saw is she had scratches all over her skin and when one of those girls touched her arm to help her up…

…you know, they always said Josie was doing something to her girls. Getting them to go under the knife, dye jobs, that sort of thing. The right kind of man will pay a lot for a girl who looks like a starlet. But the longer I was there the less they looked like anyone.

I guess Sylvester had some business with Josie. It wasn’t my philosophy to pry into a man’s personal business. Always very hush-hush on these things, always looking over his shoulder. Nice enough guy, but everyone has enemies. 

Who’s picture is this? Well, you’re the one who handed it to me, I don’t see why I should—oh. 

It’s that Lana-type girl, isn’t it? I can see it around the eyes. Hard to change the eyes on a person. Cold eyes. If I couldn’t see those peepers I doubt I could pick her out of a line-up.

…Come to think of it, I didn’t see her after she hit the bottom of the stairs. We all ran off after hearing the shot, I don’t think—look, will you stop pointing that thing at me, I’m telling the truth!

Sheesh, you have an itchy trigger finger.

Well, from what I can piece together, Sylvester had gone with Lana a few times. Maybe he was arranging something more permanent with Josie, maybe not. But there was a scream and then a gunshot, that’s all.

What do you mean, am I sure? Of course I’m sure, what…no. No one else came in with us. Did I feel anything crossing the threshold? A little giggle of excitement, that’s all, mac. I ain’t no sleeper agent, and I had nothing against the guy. Maybe Josie didn’t like her customer getting ideas, maybe Lana-alike wanted out any way she could. That’s no business of mine. Now would you please put the gun away? It’s hot enough in here as it is, I see no reason to…

What? This is my handkerchief, the one I’ve always carried. Yes, that’s my initials in the corner.

…what do you mean? It’s JBH, same as always. Don’t point the gun at me, it’s just a piece of cloth! I didn’t do anything to it, I…

…I dropped it on the sidewalk outside Josie’s place. Someone handed it back to me. Why can’t I remember? It’s like someone took a bit of hot wire and singed it out of my head.

Don’t point that at me! I didn’t mean to do anything, I had nothing against the guy! Sylvester was…

Sylvester was…

Sylvester had that book in the crook of his arm. I can see his arm, I can see the stairs, but I can’t see the rest of it, why can’t I see? 

I need to talk to Lyle, he was there too, he…no

No you’re wrong, he can’t be dead. I only just saw him yesterday—dead from what? And why do you keep pointing that flashlight in my face, are you…

…I know you, don’t I? I know your eyes. Oh god, you’re—

Don’t shoot don’t shoot don’t—

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The Dorset Child

The diary of arctic trader Nathaniel Picoult contains but one truly noteworthy entry: that of April 25th, 1865. This is the record of his encounter with two Inuit men who carried between them what they called “the Tuniit girl.”

Nathaniel spoke limited Inuktitut and the men spoke limited French, so what little can be extrapolated from the encounter is as follows:

Nathaniel first sighted the figures on the horizon, two men with a third figure walking bound between them. When they drew closer he saw they were Inuit hunters wearing bone goggles and carrying fishing spears. The third person he described as a girl of “coarse feature and no sense.” The hunters claimed to have found the girl many day’s walk to the north, she had been hiding in a crevice in a glacier when they flushed her out. The girl was of equal height to the men, yet they claimed she could not have been more than twelve years of age.

The girl wore a strange patterned mukluk decorated with a bright red pigment the hunters could not identify. Her eyes “sought out always and only the northern horizon,” and though the men claimed she was capable of speech, she did not speak a single word. Her hands were bound with walrus sinew for some time earlier the girl had taken to a sudden rage and thrown the men as easily as a killer whale tosses a seal; it was only by a blow to her head that they made her docile. Picoult theorized the blow to the head was responsible for her dazed expression and muteness.

Picoult noted the girl as having a “wet cough,” the result of coming too far south, according to the hunters. She was a creature of the snow and ice, and the climate here was too warm for her.

Picoult invited the men inside the trading post for the night but they refused, as the heat would kill her. They traded for dried meat and other sundries, spending the night in a snow shelter built just outside the post. Picoult writes of waking in the middle of the night to a whale song though the post was miles from the sea. Upon exiting the post he found the hunters savagely beating the girl, who they claimed was the source of the sound. After Picoult begged them to stop the hunters left her outside in the snow, tied to a pole, and returned to their shelter. Picoult took pity on the injured child and took her indoors, tying her to a trundle bed close to the fire.

Upon waking the next day, he found the girl had expired in the bed, her skin taking on a slack and half-filled look “as if…she were a leaking water-skin.”

The hunter’s shelter was empty, any tracks they had left were filled in by fresh-fallen snow. Picoult makes mention of taking “a bit of evidence” in his journal but failed to detail what he did with the girl’s body afterwards. Picoult remained at the post until his death from dysentery in 1872. The next man to take over the post, Guy Boucher, found what he thought to be a piece of animal hide in Picoult’s things.  The hair bears a reddish tinge and the follicles are hollow, not unlike the guard hairs of a polar bear. The hide was later tested and found to be human scalp.

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