Monthly Archives: July 2017

Green Grow the Rushes

“They gave these to me at the EFC office.” Elliott set a white envelope on the table.  The packet had no writing, no images of what might lay within. “Low maintenance. Just water and sun and they’ll do the rest.”

Kelly stared at it. “I wanted peonies.”

“These are engineered to interact harmoniously with the soil here. We can’t plant anything else.” Elliott swept the remains of his eggs into his mouth with a piece of toast. “Gotta fly. Love you.”

He wiped a kiss on the top of her head. Kelly stayed at the table long after the outer door slammed, smoking a cigarette. The envelope lay on the mustard-colored plastic of the kitchen table. The whole house was a variety of plastics in bright, clashing colors. Most of the fixtures and decorations were inbuilt. Vases stuck to counters, ashtrays grew from tabletops. Nothing moved. Kelly regarded the white intruder into her world, mouth curving down like a scar.

The yard was almost insultingly perfect. The grass was a plastic-looking variety that grew to a length of one inch(no mowing!) and every shrub was green and nondescript as a crayon scribble. Kelly left a blue front door exactly like every front door stretching off in either direction from her own.

There was a rectangular patch of bare earth by the front door, a small assent by the architects. You really can’t be satisfied with a perfect yard? Fine, here.

Kelly rolled a few seeds into her palm from the white envelope. They were perfectly spherical and characterless. No germ, no seam where the skin would part for the sprout. They looked like buckshot.

The earth in the rectangle looked packed and lifeless as styrofoam. Kelly plunged a finger into it. It squeaked.

Kelly upended the pack of seeds over the patch, letting them clump haphazardly wherever they fell. Then she retrieved the blue hose from where it sat in a coil and sprayed the patch. She watched the water carry most of the spheres away. Kelly left the hose where she dropped it, turned the water off, and went inside.

“Kindergarten’s getting bigger every day,” Elliott said over soy burgers and lentil fries that night, “I’m sure they could use a teacher.”

“I’m not a teacher,” Kelly said. She was lining the square of her burger with her fries like a barbed fence. “I didn’t go through four years of university to teach.”

“Ah, well.” Elliott shrugged. “Have fun in the garden today?”

“What are those seeds?”

Elliott shrugged again. He did the gesture well. “Dunno. Flowers, I guess.”

Kelly did not water the square patch. In fact, she did all she could not to go outside. The sprinkler must have hit them errantly as they soaked the perfect lawn. The perfectly spherical sun smiled down and nourished them. No human hand needed to guide their birth.

“I’m loving the flowers by the door,” Elliott said, packing a few square stacks of paper into his satchel. He stepped carefully through the nest Kelly had made of the den floor out of blankets, pillows, old paperbacks, dirty plastic dishes, dirty plastic cups, hairbrushes. He stopped, a question written in his hunched shoulders and not-quite-turned-to-go posture. “Maybe they’ll look nice in here.”

Kelly didn’t pick her head up from the stack of clothes she was using as a pillow. She counted to three hundred after she heard the front door slam. Elliott’s car was electric, no growl of the motor to let her know it was safe to emerge from her cocoon.

The things in the flowerbed had grown to three feet tall in their first week. They were not peonies, or roses, or daisies, or any kind of plant she knew of. Those messy celadon ruffles tipped with orange at their peak—were they petals or leaves or modified sepals? There was no stamen or pistil, no recognizable sexual organs. The branches formed a perfect upward spiral, three leaves to each branchlet. The stems were smooth and green and featureless as pipes.

Kelly grasped one by the stem and yanked. Whatever root system they had, it didn’t so much as budge. Sweating and puffing, she finally had to accede defeat. Kelly licked the sweat off her upper lip and looked up and down the street. No one around to witness her struggle. Elliott danced around the question, but only half the houses were occupied after months of pushing. Paradise wasn’t as popular as they planned.

Kelly set to her task with renewed vigor. She cried out in pain and drew her hand away from the plant sharply. The formerly smooth surface was covered in minute bristles that came away in her palm and stung, stung, stung. Kelly looked contemplatively from her hand to the plant.

“I really think this campaign is the one,” Elliott said over brown-rice rotini that night. Did he even notice that he smelled like someone else’s perfume? “People were put off by the deductions they’d get, made the place sound like the projects. But this will class it up.”

“The flowers,” Kelly said, “what are they?”

Elliott frowned over being interrupted. “They’re engineered, I told you. So Sam had the idea that—”

“Engineered how? What are they? Phylum? Kingdom?”

Elliott put on his lecturing smile. “They’re actually a fungi and a plant working together, like lichen. Plant, plants, not entirely sure. The boys who did it were the ones who made the Fire corn, matter of fact. I’d hate to see them take on thistles.” He chuckled as he stabbed his food.

“So—what, do they germinate? Produce fruit?”

Elliott frowned. “That’s not my department, baby.”

The next morning she pretended to sleep as he got ready, shooting pointed glances at her prone form. Her books had been passive-aggressively tidied into a line at her head, dog eared pages straightened so her place was lost. This morning she waited until a count of one thousand before she heard her husband’s angry sigh and footsteps going from the door.

The plants all wore bristle-beards today. She sized them up before selecting the most slender stem. A pair of kitchen scissors, because she had no gardening equipment save for the hose, pincered the plant/fungal hybrid. Kelly squeezed.

Where did the cut come from? She had felt the leaves of the other hybrids brushing against her knee and then suddenly a wet trickle down her leg. Her knee was cut. Not just once, many times from many thin blades. She pressed the hem of her shorts over the bleeding and looked at the hybrids. Their leaves now bore a jagged edge that glistened dangerously in the sun. The stem she had been cutting was now lying crooked, leaking a sap colored the same shade of blue as a robin’s egg.

Kelly limped into the house to find a bandage. In the bathroom was a first-aid kit carrying only a few white squares that vacuum-sealed to her wound once applied. She had set the scissors on the counter to attend to her knee, now she picked them up again. The blades were pitted and eaten away where the blue sap had coated them.

Elliott picked at his bean-and-broccoli stir fry. He was surprisingly taciturn tonight.

“Work go okay?” Kelly took a sip from her water glass.

“Oh yeah. Closed out the south quadrant.” Elliott stabbed at a carrot. “Not that you’d care,” he added under his breath.

“Run into the boys who made the plants again?”

Elliott shook his head. “No. We don’t mix departments.”

“Well, I was going to ask them something, but instead I’ll just ask you.”

“What?”

She set a jug of weed killer beside her knife/fork combo. “I want you to kill the plants.”

Elliott frowned. “Why do you have that?”

“Every house has this in case the lawn care service is out for holidays.” She pointed to the open pamphlet where she’d found such crucial information.

Elliott shrugged. “Seems silly, is all.” He went back to eating.

“I want you to get rid of them. Now-ish.”

Elliott rolled his eyes. “Why, are they too much work to take care of?”

“Just the opposite. They don’t need me. I don’t want to have to live with anything that doesn’t need me.”

Elliott looked at her. She smiled.

“Indulge me.”

“Fine.” He set his water cup down with a bang. He grabbed up the jug and pulled it, sloshing, outside with him.

Kelly rose from her seat and took her plate to the kitchen. She counted to three hundred and two  before the noise started up in the front yard. Then she started up the disposal in the sink and the compactor that lived in a small cupboard beneath it. The food that went in the disposal was ground and cultured until it resembled wet newspaper primed for easy decomposition. The compactor pressed them into perfectly rectangular nuggets. The disposal took the bars apart again, grinding them, tearing them. The compactor made them whole. Together they formed a perfectly closed system that needed only the barest of input. Kelly yoyoed between the two of them, fascinated with their efficiency, as her husband screamed outside.

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The Dreamers

Three children rode in the van. They wore complex headpieces that covered their eyes and ears. A cone filter capped off each nostril. Though the van jolted as it traveled over an uneven road, the children sat still and docile as penned sheep.

Maryanne rode in the back with them. She knocked on the partition separating the cargo section of the van from the driver’s seat. The privacy screen slid open, Vincent cocking his head back so he could listen and still keep an eye on the road while driving.

“We should uncap Will,” Maryanne said.

The privacy screen snapped shut.

Maryanne knocked on the partition again.

“He’s the oldest, he’s had the most discipline,” she said as Vincent slid the screen back an inch.

“It’s too risky,” Vincent said and closed the door again.

“We’ll have to eventually anyway,” Maryanne called through the door.

Vincent opened the partition, taking his eyes from the road to glance at her. “At best this is a mild inconvenience. You stay your hand until I say otherwise.”

He left the partition open.

Maryanne drew her knees up and gathered them to her chest. The children sat perfectly still and straight in their rumble seats. They had been trained to do so in a facility that lay six day’s travel behind them and they did it well. Not for the first time did Maryanne wonder what went on in their heads under those hoods.

Vincent hit the brake hard and swore. The children were thrown out of their seats, landing hard on elbows and knees. Only the girl cried out. Maryanne helped them back to a sit before she put her face to the gap in the partition.

The road before them was gone, as if someone had taken a giant eraser and simply swept the matter away. Vincent gripped the steering wheel and looked to either side of the hole, searching for a way around.

“Can we try it now? Maryanne asked.

Will stepped out of the van confidently, even though he was both blind and deaf with the headpiece on. Maryanne took him by the hand and led him in front of the van. She put his hand to the road, then guided it to the edge and the steep drop. She took out an earplug and spoke directly into his ear.

“Imagine a smooth road ahead of us. Just a nice, flat surface that extends for about a hundred yards.”

With a slight smirk, Will obeyed. The flat white began under the van’s wheels and swept before them as if some great painter’s brush was laying down paint on a canvas.

“That’s good.” Maryanne kept her tone even though her relief showed clearly on her face. “Keep it just like that. I’m going to re-seal you now.”

She caught a look from Vincent on the way back to the van.

“I don’t trust that one,” he said, “he’s having too much fun with it.”

“He’s been with us since he was small,” Maryanne argued, guiding the boy up steel steps.

“A toddler. The rest were babies. It makes a difference.”

Once they were back in the van, Vincent took them across the white surface. The van skidded almost instantly. Vincent swore again, pumping the brakes.

“What’s happened, what’s wrong?” Maryanne clung to the edge of the partition.

“The goddamn thing’s frictionless! The little bastard made it that way!”

They sledded helplessly in an uncontrollable direction until they hit the rutted, ruined ground again. Vincent turned the key in the ignition with shaking fingers.

“Out,” he said, “all of them. Now.”

The three children lined up: two boys and Hope, the only girl.

“I’m sure I just forgot to specify,” Maryanne said as Vincent inspected the boy’s headpiece, “I simply said smooth surface. How was he to know?”

Vincent stopped by the left earpiece. A slight gap, almost imperceptible to the untrained eye, between skin and steel. Vincent gestured Maryanne over with the barrel of his pistol. She bent low, face falling. She looked to Vincent and shook her head. He nodded. Maryanne straightened and paced away, keeping her back to the children. Vincent leveled the pistol at the older boy. A sharp crack from the gun and Will fell. The other two children did not even jump at the shot. Maryanne led them back to the van.

“You had no right to do that,” she said in a voice gone nasal with tears, “none.”

“His damn hood was unsealed. No telling what he heard. You can’t take chances with these things.”

Maryanne rode in silence, arm flung over the opening in the partition.

“You should be nicer to them,” she said meditatively, “they’re the future.”

Vincent snorted a laugh.

“I mean it. They can give us the world back.”

“Give it? Like it’s their goddamn gift to give?”

Maryanne was quiet. Vincent drove for some time in this silence before he brought the van to a halt.

“Why are we stopping?”

“Get them out.” He unholstered his pistol. Maryanne obeyed, mouth drawn to a thin line.

They had stopped at a place where the land fell away into the sea. Maryanne lined the children up well away from the edge. Vincent pointed at the remaining boy with his pistol. “That one.”

Maryanne unhooded him, passing hands over his face as if petting it. The boy was smaller and rounder than Will, blinking owlishly in the sudden light.

“Ernest,” Maryanne said with a slight crack in her voice, “I want you to do something.”

Ernest looked from Vincent with his pistol drawn, to her, to the girl who still sat docile and hooded, to the world around them.

“Please miss,” he said, “where are we? Where’s the lab? Where are the others?”

“Ernest, I need you to concentrate. Remember your exercises.”

The boy was hyperventilating slightly. “Is this ‘outside’? Miss, we can’t be out here. Please put me back.”

“He’s panicking,” Vincent said, pointing the gun at his back.

Maryanne threw her hands up. “Give him a chance.” She turned to the boy. “Please make me a bridge. Simple suspension.”

An excess of saliva dripped down the boy’s chin. His pupils had dilated and his gaze fixed at the middle distance.

“He’s having an episode. I can’t wait.” Vincent cocked the pistol.

“Wait, goddamn it! Ernest, please—”

The van became liquid, collapsing into a steaming puddle. Vincent emptied the clip into the boy. Ernest gasped and changed the bullets into goldfish, far too late. He fell to the ground, errant fishtails sticking out of his back and shoulders. His breath became shallow and erratic, his eyes rolled up to stare at the adults standing over him. He died. Not quickly enough.

Vincent fell to the ground screaming. Maryanne ran to his side, fruitlessly trying to administer CPR. Beneath her hands, Vincent’s skin became cotton fabric and his body sagged bonelessly. Vincent managed one last scream before his throat was overtaken with stuffing. He lay where he’d fallen, transformed into a stuffed toy.

Maryanne gulped breath, too upset to cry. She looked over to where Ernest now lay dead. Her gazed moved to the last child. Hope.

Maryanne gathered the girl to her. Hope calmly accepted the hug. In her world, nothing exceptional had happened. Her nasal filters didn’t allow the coppery blood smell to touch her olfactory nerves. The hood blinded her. The ear plugs deafened her. Only the sea breeze pushing her hair back intruded on her dark world, and the girl smiled at the sensation. Maryanne removed the headpiece bit by bit as she walked the girl slowly to the cliffside.

“Hope,” she said softly, “do you remember the picture I showed you of the seaside? Bodega bay?”

Hope nodded, curiosity dawning as sounds trickled in. “please, miss, are we in the hydro facility?”

Maryanne didn’t answer. She gazed listlessly out at the crashing waves. “I want you to imagine it. I need you to imagine it for me. Green hills. Blue sea. Can you picture that?”

“Yes, miss,” Hope said, hesitating.

Maryanne nodded. “Good girl. Make it for me.”

She removed Hope’s hood. The girl blinked in horror. The sea lay rusty and red at their feet, eating the broken coastline wave by tremendous wave. A planetary body sat in a bruised sky, many times the size of the moon, waxing form grinning at them like the greatest joke the universe ever played. Hope tried to step back and found the immovable wall of Maryanne’s body.

“Please miss, I’m frightened. I want the hood back on.”

Maryanne walked forward, pushing the girl to the cliffside with slow, measured steps.

“Please, miss!” Maryanne’s fingers sunk into the girl’s shoulders, trapping her.

“I want you to fix this,” Maryanne said in a flat voice. “Fix this so it’s back the way it was. It’s what we raised you to do.”

“Please, miss, I don’t know what you mean!” Tears streamed down the girl’s face.

“Fix this.” Maryanne’s voice rose with every word. “you need to fix this! One of you did this and one of you can goddamn fix it!”

“I can’t!” The girl scrabbled at her hands. “I don’t know how!”

With a scream of inarticulate rage, Maryanne pushed the girl from the cliffside.

Hope flew.

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The Devil Whale

In Lingit it is called the T’oohchx’é. Pacific northwestern fisherman call it “the devil whale.” It may just be a melanistic Orca lacking the white markings of its brethren, if it exists at all. And it has terrorized a patch of the arctic sea all through recorded history.

The village of [Seal-upon-the-rock] gathered on the ice. When we rose with the sun, we found them at the edge of the floe. A song came that was too terrible to hear. Our men fell to the ground and plugged their ears, for the song compelled their feet to the water. One by one the others flung themselves forward into a hole that formed in the water. When the last child was gone, the hole closed and we saw that it was a mouth. The song fell silent and the beast at the edge sank into the water once more. We did not take our boats that way anymore.

—unnamed elder, Oral History of the Arctic

The first possible sighting of such a beast was well before 500 BCE, if the oral history of the Tlingit people is to be believed. According to the Xunaa Ḵáawu people, the devil whale was part of the world before raven stole daylight. In those days a great fish swam in the sky and ate whatever fit into its mouth, which included unfortunate villages. When daylight was brought to the people, the fish fell to the water with a great tail of fire and could never rise to the sky again. The beast was far more fearsome than the polar bear or even other whales, so unpredictable was its behavior. Several Tlingit settlements have been discovered over the centuries since European contact, preserved nearly intact by permafrost, abandoned as if the villagers had stood up in the middle of their day and walked off. Corresponding oral history points the finger at the devil whale luring said villages to their doom. As of yet, no scientific explanation for the disappearances has been found.

…soon we were yawing against the wind, the great beastie caught hold of our chain and pulld us in[…] she looked as another wale til she opened her mouth which split most the length of the bodie. Half our ship was down the gullet before we could scream.

—Eustace Gabb, surviving crewmember of the Meritus

With the explorer’s age in full swing and whale oil in high demand, it seems only natural that the next accounts come from the survivors of shipwrecks. While stories of krakens and monster fish were the common feed of broadsheets, tales of “the devil whale” gained a distinction among the collectors of seafaring legends. The SS Jeanne-Marie was chasing a pod of Right whales off the coast of modern-day Yakutat when they noted a heretofore-unseen behavior in the pod. The whales began a frenzied circulation around the ship, churning the water into a torrent which spun the ship clockwise. The calves, once confined to the protected center of their family’s formation, began colliding in panic. A noise the sailors initially attributed to the crack of a glacier calving rose in height and pitch until “…[the whales] floated as lifeless on the surface.” An adult female and three calves were sucked beneath the surface by a whirlpool. The whales remained insensate for a period of half an hour after the incident, at which point the crew reinstated efforts to harvest the remaining pod. As they cut into the skin of an adult female, the rest of the pod woke from their stunned state and began attacking the ship, leading to a 2-meter hole in the starboard hull. The crew ceased their harvesting efforts and attempted emergency repairs, eventually abandoning the ship for the longboats.

I watched it chase a calf it had separated from the pod for the better part of an hour. At one point the calf beached itself in an attempt to reach a barachois, but it wound up being pulled back by this dark mass. I never got a good look at it, but it was faster than any whale of that size should be. Finally, the calf got too tired to run anymore and it got sucked beneath the surface.

—anonymous Kayaker

The marine biology skiff Uriah Heep was trawling the greater Juneau bay when the underwater microphone picked up the song of a pod of Pilot whales. At approximately 35:00 hours, the  recording equipment registered an anomaly: a frequency of 45.6 hertz, well below that of the blue whale. Over the course of ten minutes, the frequency rose until it equaled that of the Pilot whales, overlaying and mimicking the pod’s song. The boat’s radar at this point picked up a solid object traveling directly towards the pod, rivaling in size a humpback or right whale. The whale songs mingled and reached a fever pitch at the same moment the object overtook one of the lead whales. At some point the mass disappeared from the radar and the whale song continued, minus two voices.

…[the boat] circled the bay for two days. Two! At one point I sent up a flare but no one saw it. My provisions ran low, but I kept trying. That thing was far too large, it could swamp either of my lifeboats easily. Finally I got ahold of someone within radio distance and that was the aerial rescue. I think it knew I was leaving, it tried to tip the boat before the pilot reached me. If it was a whale I never saw it breach.

—James la Pierre, yachtsman.

The deep-sea exploration vessel Newton was observing polyp formation on the bed of the Arctic sea when it found a heretofore unmapped crevice in the sea bed. Sensors registered a temperature hike of 30-40 degrees at the mouth of the crevice. The explorer circumscribed the opening, trying to parse whether the temperature indicated a volcanic vent. At a certain point in the journey, the Newton’s light hit an illuminated sphere roughly the size of a soccer ball. The Newton sat attempting to discern whether it was simply a bioluminescent patch of bacteria or something else when a black material slid over the sphere from either direction, met in the middle, and then retracted. Before the crew could truly parse the nature of this movement, the vessel was upset by a sudden current and just barely managed to avoid crashing upon the nearby sea floor. After the sediment settled, the Newton was unable to find the crevice again.

My cousin lived out by himself in a shack. That day I wanted to visit with him for a few hours. I found him out standing on the shoal. There was this whine like I had tinnitus. George didn’t look back at me, just put his arms out and dropped. I ran to where I’d seen him, but there was no body on the waves. The sound stopped.

—Mary Bedard

The fishing village of Temper’s Point in the upper part of the Alexander archipelago was celebrating their Sesquicentennial in December of 2013 when half the village populace(roughly 47 people) went missing around the waterfront. A background noise akin to the more famous Taos hum has been detected periodically since the event.

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The Oolio

This town is a tourist town. Yes, it’s one of those signs you see from the highway when you speed by as fast as humanly possible: “see the great whatsit!” Most towns have something you can find in any state, like bigfoot. Not us, though. We’ve got the Oolio.

Ask any old timer on the high street and he’ll tell you the Oolio is old Choctaw for “man-swallower.” Bunkum, of course. If the name Oolio showed up before 1964, I’ve yet to see it. Still, the town treats it like it’s a real old legend. The tourist center’s full of pioneer gear and daguerreotypes. A sharp eye might gather that the colloidal snaps only record day-to-day business of a mining town, nothing supernatural, but I guess half the fun is fooling yourself by telling yourself you’re not fooled.

There’s a tour, of course. Man they call Skinny runs it, he’s the best. Folks might not be so charmed by his old cowboy act if they knew his nickname came from the surname Skinner and that he really hails from upstate New York. But Skinny’s such a good act it doesn’t matter that he ages his levi’s with a belt sander.

Skinny’s a volunteer, of course. Everyone who works in the tourist center is. Town’s kept afloat on volunteer work, that’s just how it is. Skinny’s not paid in anything but the adoration of his public. The way he sweeps and bows off that stoop from the tourist center, you’d think he was Hamlet. He’s earned it, though. As one performer to another, I have nothing but respect for the man.

Skinny takes them through the logging tracks, where firs barely taller than your kneecaps are trying to replace the great flaming birch that was all cut away. He talks about the town history first, just a little nugget of something dull to whet their appetite. He knows why they’re there. Skinny takes them up to the old logging camp, where the mess hall is the only building left standing. He gets to the pump in the middle of an anecdote about the time McKinley thought about riding through on the railway when suddenly he’ll break off in mid-sentence. I’ve timed him before, he reaches the pump after five minutes on the dot. The man is a consummate professional.

“Say, any of you folks hear about the Gaffey party?” He’ll ask like it’s a complete mystery as to why they’ve come. The name Gaffey is plastered all over the visitor’s center, which squats on Gaffey road. But the folks will go wide-eyed, shake their heads. They’re so hungry for the story they’d drink their own sunblock.

Skinny puts his arm up and lean on the pump. “‘Bout fivescore year ago—that’s a hundred for you city folks—there was a flock of hunters up this way. Fella by the name o’ Gaffey was in it, ‘long with his brother and his cousin, fella name o’ Croot. They were chasin’ a mean elk up to these parts, a big beast who could feed their families for a week. They decided to water in this camp because it was the only game around for miles. They had full run o’ the place so they decided to bunk in separate lodges. After all, they were alone…” he’ll leans forward and drops his voice. “Or were they?”

Skinny keeps a tin can full of gravel on his person, always takes it out right here. He circles the group, rolling it in his leathery hands as he watches them with a sadistic gleam in his eye.

“They put up for the day in the mess lodge. Nathaniel Croot, he started the fire. Only it was smoky, on account of some kind of blockage in the chimney. They put it out and ate by lantern light.”

Abruptly, he shakes the can. Ka-shk. Ka-shk. The hairs on people’s necks rise.

“They hear summat.” Ka-shk. Ka-shk. “Outside.” Ka-shk. Ka-shk. “Sounds a lot like this here rattler.” Ka-shk. Ka-shk. “Only there’s no gravel out here, unnerstan’. Nothing around that would make this sound.”

Once Skinny circles back around to his starting point he palms the can, playing idly with it like it’s a pen he’s just picked up by chance.

“The brothers, they’re too tough to be put off by noises. Caleb Gaffey gets his shooter and creeps up to the winder. There’s a face at the glass.”

Skinny throws the can with a horrible crash. There are always, always gasps.

“The thing he spies is dead white, hairless, pink eyes that glow in the lantern light. It don’t look right. Takes Caleb a while to figger out it’s because the whole damn thing’s upside-down. It’s hanging from the roof to scream through the winder at them. Caleb gets off two shots. Pow! Pow! Nothing.”

Now Skinny puts on a conspiratorial grin. He beckons the group with him, like the Pied Piper calling to a bunch of naughty children. They hesitate, they always do, but they follow him.

Skinny talks as he walks: “There’s no sleep that night. The brothers agree to bunk up in the mess hall. Abraham Gaffey, that’s the older, he takes first watch. But Croot, he thinks it’s all hooey. He calls a lodge all to himself that night, laughing all the way to bed.”

By this time they’re in the camp proper. They can see the old buildings, slate roof caved in by the years but log walls standing firm and strong even now. They can feel a tickle of fear as they put themselves in that dark night so long ago, so far away from any kind of safety.

Skinny turns to rest his back deliberately on a door that has been artfully crafted to look like the one it replaced.

“The brothers pin up an old gunny-sack on the hole. No one sleeps, despite the watches they set up. Abe knows the thing will be back, he’s got the hunter’s instinct. To keep himself awake, he grips a handful of nails.”

Skinny leans forward and drops his voice, so the tourists have to get closer to hear him. “But they watch the wrong place.”

He turns about-face and slaps the door open, so it hits the side of the building and shimmies a little. The large chunk of missing wood that looks like a bite mark winds up pointed right at them. They draw back. Oh, he’s good. He’s very good.

“Whatever-it-is takes a flying bite out of that door. Whatever-it-is screams like a steam engine as it shakes the hall. Whatever-it-is took Abe’s whole pan of powder and every bullet without stopping. Quick as a flash, Caleb upends the old potbellied stove.” Skinny acts it out through mime. His folksy accent gets thicker with every word. “They roll it over, jest the two of them, to the door. Abe sticks his packing rod in the latch, so the door can’t swing free. Cold and hungry and scairt, they wait up against that potbellied stove and that old door til dawn. The thing screamed right up until sunrise.”

Skinny pauses to take a breath, which lets the group take a breath. They have all been through an ordeal.

“The two brothers roll out that stove and come out. Of the trees surrounding the clearing, not a single branch had a leaf left on it. They go to the lodge to find cousin Croot stone dead, throat torn away but not a mark on him otherwise. Not ones to look a gift horse in the mouth, they lit a shuck out of there.”

Skinny clasps his hands. “That was the first sighting of the thing they call the Oolio in these parts. Abe Gaffey lived to be ninety-one years old, and I tell this the exact way he told me.”

Everyone’s shaken and laughing, everyone’s got the afterglow of a good performance. Most will wander back to the gift shop or accompany Skinny down to the saloon that serves sarsaparilla and horehound tea. But sometimes, every great once in awhile, there will be a straggler or two. They’re out-of-towners who feel the signs don’t apply to them. Or they’re wannabe explorers ready to cut through the brush. Or they’re looking for the bathroom.

That’s where I come in.

I like to situate myself on a particular path leading away from the camp. There’s a couple of these, actually, but I get people to take this one more often than not. How? I’ve cultivated every intrusive plant in the area at the entrances of the other paths.

They amble along until they’re out of earshot of the logging camp, when suddenly they clear a bend in the path and find me. I’ve got a bike with a bent front wheel and an overstuffed bag. Too many things to carry.

“Hey there, folks,” I say, “could you—whoops!” and an expensive-looking camera falls out of my hands and cracks open. I even put film in it to make it more authentic.

They’ll help of course, they’ll rush over and scramble, all while I apologize and beg them not to fret over little old me. I’m just out here being an idiot, I guess, my wife told me to stay with the group and whoops there went my GPS unit.

After they try long and fruitlessly to assuage my clumsiness, they’ll ask to escort me back to the visitor’s center. Oh gee, would they? It’s not far, it’s just this way.

I point them down another path. Sometimes it throws them off. Surely they should go back the way they came?

It’s got to be this way, I assure them, it’s got the green bands.

Every path in this area is marked “safe” by wooden stakes linked together by green bands. Easily purchasable at any hardware store, nice and mobile so I can uproot them at a moment’s notice.

They look down the path, doubting. Am I sure?

Of course this is the way back, I just came this way.

I talk up a storm as they lug my gear down the path, spinning personal anecdotes that carpet their ears and keep them from worrying. As the branches close in and make the path claustrophobic, I keep pressing them on. Just a little further. Just a leeeeetle further. Did they see it opening up yet?

I’ve got a crank flashlight that I click on as we go further into the brush. As they get uneasy, they ask questions. How long had I walked? What happened to my bike? Was I a townie or a tourist? They don’t want to ask the question that’s simmering in their mind, because that would make it real.

The trail dead ends. They’ve started walking ahead of me in anticipation of fleeing at the first sign of an opening. Now they blink at the remnants of a camp. My camp.

“Where’s the visitor’s center?” they ask.

“It’s back the way you came,” I say, clicking off the flashlight.

Then there will be a news story, some speculating about suspicious wounds, and a fruitless manhunt. The last guy they pulled in was so schizophrenic he couldn’t even work his zipper, much less scoop a throat out. They’ll urge people not to come here, which will make them swarm thicker than flies. And for a while, this little town will be bustling again.  After all, the town’s kept afloat in volunteer work. My only pay is the satisfaction of a job well done.

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