Tag Archives: psychological horror

In a Lunar Cycle

August 10, 1957

No, Pete did not pick graveyard flowers for Beth. If you really wanted to split hairs, he got them from the hillside just above the cemetery, where probably no one was buried. There were other fields he could have hunted for flowers, sure, but these were unlike any flower he’d ever seen. Sweet little translucent bells, so delicate the petal disintegrated if you touched them. Lovely. Off-putting scent, though. Oddly sweetish and cloying, like meat just about to turn. The perfume only got stronger as he carried them down that hill tucked in one sweaty hand.

It didn’t matter, anyway. Beth didn’t want the flowers. Beth didn’t want him. She stood there in that yellow checkered dress with her hair up in a daffodil-colored scarf, looking like sunshine incarnate, as she told him that her and Billy Voss had been going steady for weeks now, didn’t he know that?

At some point on the walk home, Pete looked down to find the flowers had wilted in his grip, so he let them fall on the ground. Their scent lingered, gave him a headache that bloomed into a migraine that spread to his body. At home Ma sat in her easy chair, watching her soaps, didn’t even look up when Pete came in pouring sweat and stumbling. He got himself upstairs somehow, and his clothes made it to the floor. After that it was all a blur of aches and fever and night sweat. His dreams were restless things where he ran endlessly, the elastics of his leg chewing onward without input from him. At one point he glanced in a window and saw the ghost of a devil-face grinning back at him.

Pete woke in farmer Lubbock’s sorghum field, quite nude. It was before dawn, thank God, so he only had to dodge Dan Lubbock on his way home naked as a jaybird. At home he could see the window to his second-story bedroom wide open, curtains blowing out of the frame. Was that how he’d gotten out? The back door was still locked, so it seemed like that. But he didn’t feel like he’d fallen off the roof. Pete just shook his head and shimmied up the lattice leaning against the side of the house. Crazy fever. Nothing to worry about.

September 9, 1957

Pete’s errand took him past the drug store. He detoured behind some parked cars because in the window he could see Beth and Billy sharing a malt. Disgusting how they had to flaunt it around town.

Not looking where he was going, Pete stumbled into Doc Nelson. Doc’s Airedale went rigid and started growling, every curly hair standing at attention.

“Sorry about that.” Pete could feel red spread across his face.

“Shucks, Petey, Rider’s small but he ain’t invisible,” Doc teased. He knelt down and began rubbing his dog’s shoulders. “Hush now, boy. You know it’s just Petey.” Other people paused to rubberneck at the scuffle.

Pete’s face flushed deeper. He snuck a peek across the street and yes, Beth and Billy had their heads craned out the drugstore window.

“Doc I-I’m late, I gotta run these things for my ma,” he blurted, trying to edge around them.

Rider jumped, teeth showing. He tented his back and turned so he faced Pete no matter where he moved.

“Hell, Petey, you got a sausage in your pocket?” someone crowed.

Pete turned and ran, the dog catching the end of his pant-cuff and tearing it off. The sounds of laughter and doc admonishing his dog faded as he ran down the sidewalk, errand forgotten. He kept up the pace until he reached the scrub outside the town’s pumpkin patch. Pete grasped his chest, sinking to the ground. His skin felt hot and prickly as the sweat evaporated. His bones burned.

Christ. No point in going back to town for a while. Beth had seen, and Billy was probably already laughing about it. Pete walked around the far side of the patch, to the weathered wood shed that seemed to belong to nobody in particular. It wasn’t empty.

“Oh,” Pete blurted, making to close the door.

“Don’t mind, young man.” The bum sat on an old axle gestured him in. “plenty of room.”

The man smelled of stale piss, but it was the most welcome Pete had felt all day, so he sat. A bottle of whisky with the label peeled off passed back and forth between them and the day grew hazy. It was probably close to sundown when Pete stood up.

“I have to go water the plants,’ he said. His conversation partner just waved him away.

Pete remembered opening the door. Yes, clear as a bell, he opened the door and…just felt pierced. Just pierced through. Like someone had shoved a white-hot brand through his whole body. He might have screamed, he might have fallen to the ground. The world seemed to wobble and bend like aspic.

And then suddenly…

Suddenly he woke outside. Naked, and comfortably full. As he opened his eyes, he saw the letters R-I-D-E-R just before his face. Pete sat up. Before him, white with red letters, was the doctor’s doghouse. The interior stank like blood and deep claw marks rent the white paint.

Snatching a shirt and pants from the clothesline, Pete ran home.

October 18th, 1957

It had taken a while, but the buzz about Rider was dying down. As far as people figured, a passing tramp with a vicious dog had stopped in the Doc’s yard to steal some clothes. Rider had died a hero protecting his master’s dress shirt. Pete had burned the clothes in the incinerator as soon as he’d gotten home. Ma had chided him for making the house stink, but she didn’t ask what he was doing the night before. Hell, he could’ve come in with a mortar round sticking from his gut and she wouldn’t have asked. She never had.

For the first week he’d walked around jumpy at the prospect of being fingered. That someone would magically sense what he’d done and call him to the floor. But no, all that happened was Beth and Billy walking through town, holding hands, in sickening proximity.

Pete began testing himself. He snuck portions of ma’s gin, making sure to keep it topped off with water, and when that didn’t bring out the result he would purchase bottles “for” her at the store. It didn’t work. No matter how drunk he got, he never felt the liquid rage of that night. Perhaps the bum had slipped him something in the whiskey. But then he himself had drunk from the same bottle. Had he felt the same thing? Pete went back to the shed the next day, but only found a torn-open bindle. Three yards from the shed, a discarded shoe. He had run away in a hurry, but from what?

Pete finally left the mystery in a jumble. No point in straining himself too much. He sank back into his normal routine of avoiding everyone he could whenever he could. Beth and Billy were regular fixtures around town, so he tried to avoid it. He took long walks around the farmlands that bordered town, which was how he ran into Clint Willoughby and his goons.

Pete had already been feeling under the weather. The air had that sort of wobbly quality that made him think he was getting the flu. He stood on the old stone bridge that had been a carriage-way but now was just a footpath littered with orange maple leaves that crunched under his feet.

Oh, she’s a beaut. Hand her over here, will ya?

The nasal tone floated up to Pete like a mosquito, piercing his peace. Clint had never gotten over middle school, where he’d grown hard and fast like a weed and towered over everyone else at twelve. Pete had always been a favorite target of his. Maybe he could sneak away in the other direction.

No such luck.

“Hey Petey’s here,” Clint crowed. In one hand he had a girlie mag, glossy black and white pictures of Betty Page and some other blonde in bondage gear. In the other he had a flick-knife. Behind him were Nate and Gary and Rob, the mouth-breather’s club from Franklin High.

Pete teetered. It felt like he was wading deeper into warm water, his limbs uncoordinated and his balance gone.

“Please,” he mumbled, “please not right now.”

Rob and Nate grabbed his arms, Gary got his head by the scalp and brought him under the bridge. They flicked matches on him and then they made him drink out of the tin can they’d used for chewing tobacco and after a while they got bored and simply kicked him.

The sun was sinking behind Clint’s shoulders as he hefted a big rock.

“My dad told me about this tradition in darkest Africa,” he said, “they got this warrior test where they take a man out to the desert and pile rocks on him. The more rocks, the braver the man.”

“Clint, when your dad ever been to Africa?”

“Shut up,” Clint said without looking away from Pete. “You want to show me how brave you are?”

Pete was splitting, just splitting in half. Like a maggot in a peach pit, he was ripping right in half and something was coming out.

“Please,” he said.

And then he woke up.

It was still night, or early enough morning it looked like night. It would have been very easy to write it all off as a fever dream, only he was so clear-headed now it hurt. He knew he was naked. His foot hit a wet sharp chunk of something and he shut his eyes and felt his way back up to the road. Whatever was under that bridge, he didn’t want to see.

November 7th, 1957

The town was abuzz about the wolf attacks. That’s what they called it. Wolves or wild dogs. The gun shop had a special on shotgun shells. Farmers doubled up their fences. The lover’s lane was cordoned off indefinitely, leading to a lot of rushed gropings behind barns and outhouses.

Some were forced out into the open. Beth wore Billy’s school pin like a crucifix; they kissed between classes and on lunch breaks and any time the sun was up. Pete had developed a sort of low-grade heartburn that was present at all times.

Clint’s mother had shown up to school assembly the first Monday after the his death with his bloody shirt, tearfully reminding everyone to stay where there were people. Pete kept his head down not out of respect but of fear. He suspected eyes on him at all times.

What had happened that night? Anything he’d done was almost certainly in the act of self defence.  Yet he knew instinctively he could not confess his presence at the scene to anyone, because it would be taken the wrong way. So what if he was sick? That didn’t mean he was a murderer.

Pete watched Bill Voss tilt his girl’s head up and kiss her like Cary Grant in the movies. He wrung his sweaty hands, one against the other. The last thing he needed was another thing to draw attention to him. It wasn’t his fault, whatever it was.

He walked down the sidewalk after school, head down. His forehead met the steady surface of a chest. Looking up he found it was Doc Nelson, his face held no trace of his former joviality.

“Oh, Petey,” he said, “how’s your ma holding up? It’s been a good while since our last visit. She needs her scrip filled, don’t she?”

Pete mumbled something, looking down at the sidewalk. He’d become so sweaty lately, nervousness oozing out of his pores.

“You might come in for a check up yourself, looking a little green around the gills.”

His hand moved to feel Pete’s neck, and Pete instinctively slapped him away. Doc stepped back, startled.

“Or don’t,” he said, “you’re old enough to know when you need to go.”

Pete ducked into his collar and hustled down the sidewalk. Everyone was staring at him. God damn this town. God damn Billy Voss and Beth Palmer. God damn the people who pointed their eyes at him like he’d done something wrong. God damn it all.

Ma was in the easy chair, watching her soaps. She sat too close to the TV and smiled witlessly at the actors pretending to live.

“Ma,” Pete choked out. He knew it was coming on, he could feel it rushing down the track like a burning boxcar. He fell to his knees.

Ma flapped her hand. “Keep quiet, child. Got no time for your nonsense.”

Pete grasped sweatily for her hand. “Ma, please. I gotta tell you something. I think…I done something bad.”

For the first time in what felt like years, his mother’s eyes drifted from their nine-inch television screen and to his face, floating like goldfish behind her thick rimless glasses.

‘Whatchu say?” she scowled. “Whatchu say to me?”

“Something’s wrong with me, ma. I’m sick. I think I’ve done something wrong and I don’t know what.”

She stared at him.

“Ma…it hurts.” A pain was parked at the base of his spine. “It all hurts. I don’t know what to do, ma. Please help me.”

Ma reached out, slowly, to touch his cheek.

And slapped it.

“You,” she hissed, “you—you—dirty boy! Wicked boy!” She rained weak blows down on his head and bent back. “You’re filthy, do you hear me? Dis-gust-ting!”

Pete hurt, the pain came from within and without. “Ma,” he sobbed, “don’t, please don’t.”

“Get away! Nasty thing!” She spat on him. “You should die!”

The fluid transition from now to then was oddly comforting. Pete closed his eyes as if in sleep and when he woke he was lying in the patch of violets under Beth Palmer’s window with an erection. His breath misted the glass as he looked down on her sleeping form, the charming twist of her cupid’s bow mouth. How hatefully calm she looked, never had a problem once in her life.

Pete walked home starkers, completely calm. As he drew close to home, he debated hiding from the men lingering in front of his splintered front door. But then Leo Palmer saw him and ran, shotgun balanced on his forearm.

“Petey,” he said, “oh damn, you too?”

Pete’s naked body was scratched and bruised from a dash through the undergrowth. Someone threw a horsehair blanket over him while they shielded him from the view of his living room.

“It’s a mess, son,” Leo said, “how’d you get away?”

“Guess I ran,” Pete said truthfully, “don’t remember much.”

His eyes were dry.

December 7, 1957

It was generally agreed that Pete should finish up the winter semester. His uncle that lived in the city was paged to take him on, at least for a few months. After all, he was nearly the age of majority, he could be responsible for himself.

Leo Palmer put him up. Pete slept on an army cot in a room with Beth’s little brother Ted and saw Beth Palmer at breakfast and supper. She made a study of not looking at him. At other times, her displeasure might have needled him, but Pete took a strange satisfaction from it now. She couldn’t escape into Billy’s lips, not at home. Pete relished in buying her mother fresh daffodils from the town florist and sticking them in a vase on the piano as Beth practiced her scales. Beth walked to the end of the driveway to meet Billy now, hair tucked under a scarf like a philandering housewife. It didn’t sting anymore. He would be gone soon. Nothing much mattered anyway.

Pete took to long walks around the fields. He was not fleeing anymore, he was etching their shape in memory. He felt he would miss them in the city.

In a dell that was blown over with snow, he found Beth and Billy locking lips.

“Supposed to stay close to town,” he said, savoring their startle as they pulled apart.

“Awjeez,” Billy exclaimed, dabbing Beth’s lipstick from his lips.

Beth stared at Pete, cold fury behind her eyes. “You’re a peeping tom, Pete Patton.”

“S’not peeping if you’re putting it out there for all to see,” Pete said. He wore no jacket, flush with his odd warmth.

“Well I wouldn’t have to, if you’d give me a moment’s peace,” Beth snapped.

“Calm down, sugar. He’s just lost his ma, he’s bound to be a little…” Billy gestured vaguely.

“Oh not even. Petey, you were a creep before and you’re a creep now,” she hissed, “and I don’t believe you’re sorry at all that your mama died.

The sunset was setting in a shade pink as Beth’s winter coat. Pete let the light fill up his eyes and drank it all in. The crisp snow, the dead gray stalks in the field, the couple shivering in their winter wear.

“Believe what you want,” he said, back prickling pleasantly. “makes no nevermind to me.”

Billy was glancing beyond his shoulder, puzzled. “What you lookin’ at?”

Pete smiled. “Wanna see something?”

December 8, 1957

Pete moved on.

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Scutt’s Palsy

Records place the first outbreak of Scutt’s island-bound illness at around 1875. Scutt lies just off the coast of Washington and boasted a population of around 300 at the time, not counting the cattle that suddenly displayed Scrapie-like symptoms. Though advised to cull the herd, there was no evidence of the islanders even moving to quarantine the sick cattle, due to the belief of the time that Scrapie was not transmittable to human beings. Instead, we see the outbreak of what came to be called Scutt’s palsy in the spring of of 1881. Victims displayed loss of motor control and speech, trembling, drooling, spasms, and finally death. One surviving brain sample taken from an autopsy (labeled H. Raglin, 24) shows spongiform encephalopathy similar to that of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. While the study of infection and disease was only in its infancy at the time, the similarities between human sufferers and the diseased cattle could not be overlooked. Islanders resisted the ordered extermination of their native livestock to the point that the national guard was dispatched to oversee the cattle’s liquidation. Losing the herd struck a blow to the islander’s pride in their self-sufficiency; too poor to import more cattle, they now had to make do with pricier imported meat or go without.

The Scutt’s palsy sufferers were exported to mainland sanitariums where they lived out the brief remainder of their lives. Scutt’s palsy passed out of vogue; with no cure or cause forthcoming the study was halted and the manpower rerouted elsewhere. Life settled down to something much like it had before the cattle’s illness.

Then, in 1907, it returned.

The fact that the resurgence even made it out to public eyes is owed to one woman: Bess Finch. Bess’s correspondence with her Scutt-dwelling sister, one Hedda Martin, ceased suddenly and unceremoniously. Bess became concerned with her wellbeing, doubly so when Hedda’s husband Edmund sent word that her sister had suddenly passed and the funeral had been held already. Despite repeated missives, Edmund refused to clarify whether Hedda had been cremated or buried, or if she had willed anything to her sister. This reticence had become common on Scutt since since the cattle cull. One anonymous source noted their funerals: “...mean and sparse, even for poor folk. The casket is always closed, the service brief to the point of blasphemy.”

Bess Finch refused to accept the widower’s explanation and created such agitation that mainland officers were dispatched to the island to investigate foul play. They found a number of doors closed tightly to their inquiry, and a grave for Hedda Martin that held an empty coffin. The island’s resident doctor had died in 1895 without replacement, so they had only the widower’s word that Hedda had died from illness alone. What seemed to lend credence to his story were the state of the islanders, many of whom displayed symptoms of Scutt’s mysterious disease.  While the initial outbreak had an infection index of around 15%, now the palsy struck closer to 45% of the population. While in 1881 it had plagued mostly the elderly and sick, now it spread equally across generations and genders.

More manpower was issued from the mainland. What had begun as a murder investigation turned into a mass arrest as newer and stranger evidence came to light. Investigators found Scutt’s slaughterhouse was in good repair despite the deficit of red meat on the island. It was only when they dismantled the building and its equipment that they found evidence of Scutt’s replacement protein wedged beneath a bin in the hide storage room.

It was a human femur.

The bin itself sat upon a trap door, once opened they found the door serviced a massive pit of bones bearing cut marks and “pot polish.” Scutt’s graveyard was subject to a mass exhumation, where they found that only one in five caskets held a body. The island’s priest who presided over the brief funerals was found to be a lay preacher unaffiliated with any church.

How, when, and why the islanders turned to cannibalism is a mystery lost to time. Perhaps a combination of bruised pride, medical ignorance, and lack of spiritual leadership worked together with the isolation of the island.  Scutt dwellers remained tight-lipped, even as they were brought to trial on the mainland. Physical evidence tells us that all funerals, barring virulent illnesses such as cholera, stood as a source of nutrition. Marrow and brains were highly prized, all but ensuring the spread of the encephalopathy.

By the time he stood trial for his part in his wife’s death, Edmund Martin already showed signs of the disease that would kill him and many others in prison. The last islander died in 1910 at 13 years of age, taking with him perhaps the last of the encephalopathy. Scutt island was evacuated after the trial and remains uninhabited to this day.

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Millie Turpin’s Haunted Brownstone

Millie Turpin’s brownstone was haunted. We knew that as well as we knew the sky was blue or that the ground beef at Kemp’s market was always bad. Day in, day out, she’d be rattling around the junk piled to the walls in her home like a round, pale fish. It’s a wonder she found enough room to thrash around at night, but she did. Moaning and wailing and crashing through furniture. Millie would scream at “them” to get out in her steam whistle shrieks. The people neighboring her invested in earplugs. Millie invested in the local paper. Folks say her entryway was shoulder-deep in back issues of that fishwrapper.

Millie was as old as the neighborhood, just about. Her grandparents had bought the brownstone and raised her father there. Millie herself grew up on those steps, went to school at the local Grover Cleveland elementary, she even worked for a little while out of high school. She split her time between the library and her parents, who lay at death’s door for the better part of twenty years. The Turpins. If we blame anyone for the shrieking, hoarding spectacle of our years, we blame them. They ruined Millie. Our parents always said her decline started right around the time Ruby and Joseph Turpin took to their beds and never got out again. Millie became a full-time nurse before she was old enough to vote. Any grandparent on the street could tell you exactly what the Turpins were like; Ruby, shrill and demanding and demeaning, and Joseph, so paranoid he refused to even deal with the doctors at hospital visits. Between the two of them they broke Millie.

Our parents can remember the day they found the Turpins. Completely incidental, of course. The meter-reader came by when Millie happened to be out, otherwise he never would have gotten in. A helpful citizen (Millie would wail and accuse, but no one ever fessed up to the deed) pointed out that the lock was one of the old-fashioned ones and with a little jarring, the door popped wide open. The meter-man stepped into 2305 Alcott street and clapped his hand to his nose. Inside was the most unholy air freshener-fog, mingling with something else. Something foul. The meter was in the kitchen, and the only way to the kitchen was through the den that had served as the elder Turpin’s sick room.

As far as they could figure, Ruby went first. She’d cut her leg and it had gone septic. Joseph would have prevented Millie from calling an ambulance for her mother, right up until the stroke felled him. They figured that happened while Millie was out, and without her care he fell and hit his head. They lay where they had fallen for six weeks, the coroner said, with Millie carrying on as she had around them.

Poor Millie. Naturally they had to put her someplace, and you know the hospitals were bad back then so she probably came out in worse shape than when she’d gone in. The brownstone was held in a trust, so at least she had a home to come back to. But she didn’t have a whole lot to come back with. No friends, no relatives (none that we knew of) not even a church. No, Millie went into that brownstone by herself and stayed.

The ghosts showed up shortly after.

Naturally, you’d have night terrors after such a thing. But night terrors were nothing to call the police over. The cops finally got sick of coming to our neighborhood after too many phantom burglars who vanished when they got there. That was Millie. She wore on you. After a time you learned to ignore the screams, close your curtains when she opened hers.

Millie started getting really bad around the time the makeup of the neighborhood changed. Brownstones turned into high-rise apartments, grocery carts became bodegas, and the kids spoke Spanish or Gullah. Her paranoia got worse and she got more aggressive. We all still remember the day she turned a fire extinguisher on girls double-dutching in front of her steps. The kids in the neighborhood knew Millie. They hated her.

No one’s really sure how the rumor started that she had a fortune in her place. It had weight, of course. Her secrecy, her paranoia, her thrifty ways. Buster Gutiérrez, before he quit the neighborhood one August night, used to say her folks didn’t trust banks after the Wall Street crash and started storing their money in floorboards. There was gold in that rat’s nest, provided you could shift past the mess that was already accumulating.

It was amazing. You never saw Millie out and about, but somehow the junk began to pile up in her place. Most of it was throwaway furniture people left on street corners. Of this Millie spoke only once, mentioning offhandedly that it kept “them” at bay.

“Them” of course being the ghosts she collected like fleas.

Her parents had only been the first few drops before the cloudburst. Suddenly Millie was chased from one end of her home to the other by specters every night. Somehow, and she never explained how, the hoard slowed them down. So she accumulated piece after piece until you couldn’t see properly through the windows, until the front door could barely be opened. The secret wealth rumor grew like a rash, because why go to all this trouble unless she was hiding something? It didn’t matter, of course. No one went for the money, not really. Usually the ballsy punks who wanted to go after Millie really just wanted out. After a while “Millie Turpin’s money” became a metaphor for skipping town. Punks came and went, going from leather jackets to buckskin fringe to black hoodies, and Millie stayed the same.

No one can name the exact day she died. No one knew. Going months, maybe even years without seeing Millie Turpin had become common. The smell drifting off the place had always been awful, probably down to decade’s worth of garbage never curbed, so the death-smell hadn’t tipped anyone off. No, what pushed the first domino was some anonymous punk and an act of petty vandalism. Some faceless hellraiser send a brick through Millie’s kitchen window just to savor the crash. Through the broken glass, he spied Millie, face down and pale as a beached manatee.

The coroner ruled Millie’s death as a misadventure. That’s a polite way of saying “accidentally tripped her own booby trap and died five feet from the door.” A snare cobbled from piano wire and a mattress spring that lay waiting by the table to cripple the legs of the unlucky. Millie died as she lived, mere feet from help and too proud to call for it.

Of course the whole neighborhood turned out for the clearing-out. In a way, we’d all been ready for it long before she’d died. The day they finally cracked that nut and told us more about the woman than we’d ever learn in life. Oh, we got exactly what we asked for.

We got Buster Gutiérrez.

He’d been waiting three feet from the stairs for all these years, face down beneath a bookcase full of old bricks, dried to the floor. She’d left him there. She’d left Jim Delacroix, the boy who had lit out after a argument with his father, by the old water heater. Downstairs Patrice Gibson, who had always sworn he would quit this town for something better. Well, he’d been half right.

It was like peeling a maggoty onion, each layer holding more bodies. Some people who had gone unmissed, some who had. The spinster who played organ for church found a letter jacket and sobbed into it. Now, they said, it made sense. Poor Millie was out of her wits, didn’t know the difference between the living and the dead. All these years trying to defend herself against phantoms that hadn’t been phantoms, and her poor addled brains hadn’t been able to ask for help.

….except.

Except that’s a little too neat. It would be easy to blame it on the hospital and call it a day. But think of Millie alone in that brownstone for weeks, living around her parents. Think of the quiet, the peace as first one and then the other dropped away. Think of the kind of rage built after a life of service for other people, the kind of rage that grows from being pinned to one place day after day after day. Everyone knows ghosts aren’t solid, you can’t trap them or barricade them in. And so many calls to the police for nothing, so many calls that they stopped coming out or cared about the noise coming from Millicent Turpin’s old place…

Maybe we weren’t wrong that Millie’s brownstone was haunted.

Maybe we were just wrong about what was haunting it.

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In a Time of Famine

Two children walked through the forest. They could have been twins, or simply close siblings. The boy was towheaded and the girl’s hair was plaited in two mouse-brown pigtails. Their feet were muddy and shoeless, and they had been walking for a very long time indeed.

As the trees thinned out, they spotted a tidy white cottage. The walls looked like fresh marzipan, the windows shone like spun sugar. Even the clean little picket fence gleamed like glazed bread. The widow who owned the cottage bumped the door open with her hip, bustling out to the clothesline with an armful of washing. She dropped it when she saw the children.

“Good heavens!” she said, “where did you come from? Have you been walking far?”

The children just stared at her. Their gazes were hungry.

“Oh you poor dears,” she said, crossing to unlatch the gate, “you look like you’ve had such a terrible time. Come in, come in.”

The interior of the cottage was spotless and spare. The old widow handed a broom to the girl, who gnawed on the handle. The widow snatched it away, laughing.

“No, girl! I’ll prepare you some supper. I’d like for you to do chores while I’m working. No children with idle hands in my house!”

To the boy she gave a rag and a tub of blacking and set him at the wrought iron oven in the corner.

“You, my boy, will give that oven a lick and polish.”

The widow cut up bread and cheese and one of the smoked sausages that dangled in the kitchen window.

“Where have you come from? Surely you must have walked such a long way to reach me.”

“The other edge of the forest,” the boy said in a flat voice.

“The other edge of…” the widow set a cheese-knife on the platter. “But that’s impossible, those trees are thicker than a dog’s fur. What possessed you to do that?”

“Famine,” the girl said in a thin voice, “we were sent away, so as not to be eaten.”

“Famine?” the widow shook her head. “I know these are lean times, but I haven’t heard such a thing. Perhaps things are worse on your side of the trees, hmm? Come now children, eat up.”

The food was gone almost before she set the platter down. The children looked at her, expectant..

“You poor children.” She pet their heads. “Many have come and gone in this house, but I thought I would end my days all alone. I know I am not family, but I invite you to stay as long as you want. Eat as much as you like, become plump and hale again.”

The boy gazed just past her, at the oven which glared black and baleful in the corner.

The girl said, “father warned us against talking to anyone we met in the forest. Said they’d try to eat us.”

“Well, you’re safe now, you poor dears.” The widow lay a kiss on top of each matted head.

She cooked another sausage for dinner and more bread and ladle after ladle of gravy. No amount seemed to decrease the children’s hunger, so finally she sent them to bed for lack of a better idea.

The widow woke in the night from an unfamiliar noise. She found the boy knelt in front of the oven where he had stoked a fire so hot it shone white from the grate.

“Oh you poor boy,” she said, draping her shawl over him, “you’re cold, aren’t you? I can unpack the winter bedding.”

The boy looked at her, face as inscrutable as the oven door. “I would like to cook something. How can you tell if the oven is hot enough?”

The widow, unsettled by his blank manner, tried to smile. “You open the oven and hold your hand before the flames and count. However long it takes until you pull your hand away will tell you.”

“Like this?” the boy held his hand a good distance away from the oven’s mouth.

“No, no, I’ll show you. The widow settled on her knees before the open oven and held her hand out.

When the girl arose, the boy was standing before the oven. The widow stuck halfway out, her body having smothered the fire. The two exchanged a look.

Over the next three days, they scraped the widow’s house clean. They ate up all the sausages and hams and bacon that sat in her smokehouse. They slaughtered her milch cow and mixed the blood with her flour. They left after uprooting the bulbs in her garden and enjoying an unsatisfactory last meal.

 

A shepherd’s wife was supervising her children in gathering chicken eggs when she spotted the siblings approaching, muddy and thin as reeds. She exclaimed and grabbed  them both.

“And who do you belong to?” she asked. “Nevermind. Let’s get you inside and get a meal in you before my husband gets home. He’s a right ogre about uninvited guests.”

Their house was one big room sheared down the middle with a crude twig fence. She sat her children, two girls thick and ugly as pitch, across the table from the newcomers. Everyone got the same glass of milk and side of mutton with potatoes. The brother and sister were done before her children had taken two bites. The woman shook her head.

“What kind of parent left you in such a state? Nevermind, you’re here now. Hide yourselves up in the loft until I can talk to my husband.”

The father of the family, twice the size of any of them and ugly as sin, came home at sundown with his flock. The sheep went to one half of their house, while he hung his hat in the other.

“Woman,” he said, “it stinks of secrets in here. What strays have you brought home this time?”

“How could you tell? Nevermind, I’ve found two children wandering like lost lambs.”

The wife beckoned them from their hiding place. The man took their chins in his big hands and turned their heads this way and that.

“More bone than flesh on ‘em,” he grunted. “Wouldn’t make a meal for a dog.” He patted the boy’s cheek, which held the beginning prickles of a beard. “Well, wife? Let’s fatten them up.”

The woman cooked a large meal from half a sheep’s carcass. The boy and girl’s appetite was only matched by her husband, who regarded them curiously.

“How do they feed you where you come from?” he asked.

“They don’t,” the girl said, “there is no food.”

“Where is this?”

As one, they pointed back at the woods.

“Schottsberg? Dressen? Surely not Hommsted?”

The children looked at him blankly.

“No mind. You’re here now, and you’ll learn a trade that will keep you happy and fat.” The man shook his ample gut. “Off to bed for you all.”

His girls had snow white nightcaps, but the muslin used to make them was all gone.

“I’ll make do,” his wife sighed, and quickly basted two red caps from an old shirt of her husband’s. The four children slept to one bed. In the middle of the night the boy arose. He took a knife from the kitchen area and slit the girls’ throats before exchanging their caps for his and his sister’s. When the man arose with the coming dawn, he ruffled their heads fondly before  he went out with his sheep. Then the boy and girl climbed out of bed. They found a large rock and, working between them, rolled it to the entrance of the house. They heard the woman wake up.

What slug-a-beds you two are. Come and get up, my girls are already hard at work.

They heard a mother’s anguished scream. They heard her thudding footsteps come to the door. They tipped the rock and it fell on the woman’s head, smashing her skull.

The boy and girl, carrying the other half of the sheep carcass between them, fled.

 

A woodsman was splitting a cord of yew outside his cottage when his wolf began to growl at the woods. He turned and found the cottage had been approached soundlessly by a boy and girl in tattered rags.

…No, they were small and spare, but they were not children. Their clothes had been outgrown for some time, but rather than mend them the pair had tied more cloth over the holes. Their hair was tangled and matted. It took a moment of puzzling before the woodsman realized they had no shoes.

“How do?” he asked. He set his axe down politely but kept it within reach. The wolf’s hackles remained up. The boy eyed the animal.

“Beast.”

“He’s no more beast than any other. He’s my pet, I’ve raised him by hand.”

“Wolves are beasts,” the girl said, “our father said they will use all manner of trickery to lure children in to be gobbled up. Some can even walk and talk.”

“Tales to scold naughty children,” the woodsman said. He grabbed the wolf by the scruff and scrubbed fondly behind his ears. “Jack here is no more beast than any other dog. He guards the house when I’m gone.”

The boy and girl gazed past him, to the cottage.

“That,” the boy said.

“House,” the girl said.

The woodsman glanced behind himself. Jack growled. He returned his gaze to the intruders to find that they had surreptitiously moved closer when he’d looked away.

“Yes? What about it?”

“Our father,” the boy said.

“Told us our grandmother lived in a little red cottage with ivy on the roof,” the girl said.

The woodsman shrugged. “I  know nothing about that. This place was abandoned when I found it. If your granny lived here, well…she doesn’t anymore.”

The intruders looked at him. Their eyes were flat and expressionless.

“Did you,” the boy said,

“Kill her?” the girl asked.

“No,” the woodsman said. “Come in and look if you like.”

Their feet left dark prints on the white wood floor. The woodsman kept his ax close by as he followed them through the cottage. They looked at the humble fireplace, the pantry, and the loft the woodsman shared with Jack.

“Where,” the boy said.

“Is she?” the girl asked.

“I can’t tell you something I don’t know,” the woodsman said, “why do you want to find her so badly?”

The two turned to him as if surprised he was still there.

“There was a famine,” the boy said, “our father turned us out of the house. He couldn’t feed us anymore.”

“He told us to go to our grandmother’s,” the girl said, “we would live with her and she would feed us and take care of us.”

“How long ago was this? I haven’t heard of a famine around these parts.” He looked at their faces, which held no answer. “Why seek her out anymore? You could take care of yourselves.”

They looked at him as if he’d started speaking in gibberish. “Only she can care for us. Father said.”

The woodman sighed.

“You’re welcome to the hearth tonight, if you wish. Tomorrow…we’ll just see.”

The boy woke in the middle of the night. Behind him a conversation had been going for some time.

“…but you must think of marriage soon,” the woodsman’s voice drifted over, “and I am well within my means to provide for you. If you’re worried about your brother, he’s more than welcome to stay. I’ll teach him my trade, he’ll be able to find a wife in no time.”

“But only grown women can marry.”

“Have you looked at yourself? You are old enough to make your own home, you don’t need your grandmother.”

“But we must find her, she will take care of us. Father said to trust no one but her.”

The boy opened his eyes. Across from him, silver in the moonlight, Jack sat. The wolf growled low in his chest when he saw the boy open his eyes. The boy began moving very slowly and silently, a skill he had gained over the years.

And what then, if you find her? If this isn’t her cottage and she hasn’t died yet, how many years does that leave you?”

Quick as a viper, the boy shot out of his blankets and cleaved the wolf’s skull in two with a carving knife he kept concealed  in his clothes.

“Jack!” The woodsman leapt up. The girl stabbed at his back with a knife they’d fashioned from a bit of bone, but only caught him through his clothes. The woodsman backhanded her and came leaping over the table to the hearth. The boy wielded his knife, but the woodsman had muscles as tough as oak and they had lost the element of surprise. He beat the boy and turned him out of the cottage, throwing the girl after him.

“Never come back,” he spat out the door, “beasts!”

He buried Jack under a cairn of stones so heavy he could barely lift them. True to suspicion, someone tried to disturb the grave in the night and only managed to shift one rock. He sat up the  next night and many nights after that, but nothing else dared to venture near.

 

A serf was wandering back from the fields late one day. He whistled and walked fast. He had a pint of good ale and a slab of meat waiting for him at home. This humble peace was disrupted when he stumbled upon a woman lying prostrate in a ditch, and a man who crouched by her head.

The man had a thick, matted blond beard and wore rags that were held onto his body with vines.

“Help me,” he shouted at the serf in a shockingly high voice, “she’s not moving!”

The serf had only a small knife for self defense, he didn’t want to come close to the wild man. But the woman on the ground did seem to be in distress.

“Well, what’s happened?” the serf crouched down. “Is it a female complaint?”

The man looked at him blankly. “Help her.”

“How? With what? I’m no doctor.” The serf stood again. “Hang on, I’ll fetch my brother-in-law. He’s handy with sheep, that’s as close as I’ve got.”

The serf returned with his in-law, only to find the man crouched over the woman’s face. He had opened a vein in his wrist, with his teeth, by the look of it, and was now squeezing blood into her slack mouth. He looked up with wild eyes.

“Isn’t this helping?”

The serfs shouted and crossed themselves, fleeing. The last anyone saw of the wild man, he had taken up the woman’s body and fled back to the forest. For many years after the serfs would warn their children to stay out of the woods, because all manner of terrible man-eating beasts lived among the trees.

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The Shambling Detective 5: The Oculus Institute

Mahoney lay on the murphy bed with a wet washcloth over his eyes. Operating entirely by touch, he fumbled for the glass at his bedside table and brought it to his lips, sloshing bourbon on his unfastened collar in the process.

“So the pillar turned into a recess?” Chick Henshaw said. He sat at the card table Mahoney used in the dining room/den, ashing into a juice glass. “Sounds simple enough. A guy makes somethin’ round, halfway through he dents it in. Nothing to lose your lunch over.”

“No, it wasn’t like that. It was…it was just both at the same time. In and out. If you could have seen it—”

“Yeah, yeah.” The studio chair creaked as Chick rearranged himself. He had helped himself to some of the deli chicken in the ice box, the smack of him chewing made Mahoney nauseous. “I getcha. I was at one of those sideshows a while back with my girl, Gertie. We see one of those human knots, you know, and the way he was all pretzeled up didn’t seem possible.”

The door slammed and Dooley stalked in. “Chick, quit boring the detective with your love life. Mahoney? I’ve got the paper.”

Mahoney eased his feet off the bed and slowly sat up, keeping the washcloth to his eyes until the very last minute. As the wet cloth fell from his eyes it disclosed Dooley, shirtsleeves rolled up past the elbow and tie askew. He held an accordion-fold pamphlet printed on sickly green paper.

Mahoney gestured. “That it?”

Dooley pulled back a little. “You shouldn’t go there.”

“But I’m going.”

Dooley sighed. “Stubborn ass.”

“I got no choice, Dooley.”

“Yeah, if he don’t go, who will look after the kids?” Chick said through a mouthful.

Dooley glanced back. “Hush.”  To Mahoney he said, “look, I’ve got guys for this. Gimme a day or two to arrange something. This place is bad news. Why you need in there so badly anyway?”

Mahoney glanced beyond him to Chick. “Hey, check the drawer there for me, the one second from the right?”

Chick opened it with a rattle of silverware.

“What’s in there?”

Chick took out a small slip of paper. “The yellow sign.”

Mahoney looked back at Dooley. “I’m going in. I can’t quit because it won’t quit me.”

Dooley hissed air over his teeth. “Hell. Take this, I’m on a union break.”

He thrust the pamphlet at Mahoney and stalked over to the window, lighting up one of his hat-band cigarettes.

The pamphlet read “THE OCULUS INSTITUTE” in lettering only slightly more welcoming than barbed wire. A crown of laurel leaves  graced the front page. Mahoney sniffed. Laurel wreath. Brotherhood of leaves. Ha. So much for academic wit.

The pamphlet spoke as if singling him out as a misunderstood genius. The institute knew how society had failed him, how the disorder he struggled with was the fault not of him but the people around him. He needed to swim with like-minded individuals to recover. He needed the Oculus Institute.

Mahoney lowered the pamphlet. “Guys, I think I might be the second coming of Isaac Newton.”

Chick snort-chuckled. Dooley smoked irritably, not bothering to make sure the smoke successfully reached the slit of the kitchen’s hopper window.

Mahoney sped through the rest. It was rote, offering tennis courts and Olympic-sized swimming pools in the same breath as operating rooms and shock therapy. Basically a cush hamper to dump your unsightly relatives in until such time as they were ready again for polite society. The pamphlet was signed by one Thurgood Orroft, MD.

“And what do we know about the good Dr. Orroft?”

“Well, for starters he isn’t an MD.” Dooley flicked the ash off his cig with a pinky. “He isn’t M-anything. He’s what you might call a guru. They let him put that on the pamphlet because he’s got rich friends in the right places. I looked into this guy, Mahoney. He’s scary. You remember that senator’s daughter, the one who tried to stop a trolley with her mind and ended up smeared down seventh street?”

Mahoney nodded. The throb in his head was dulling, but it was being replaced with a general tension all over his body. He took another slug.

“He was her ‘therapeutic consultant’. Same with that Olympic diver who aerated his wife with buckshot. Or that chessmaster who took a knife to his handlers to see if they were real people or life-sized chess pieces. All graduates of the same laughing academy.” Dooley drifted over to the bed. “Look, whatever I can say to convince you this is a bad idea, I’ll use it. Religion, money, anything. I’ve been in the same room as killers and dictators and this guy scares white into my hair. Say you’ll wait. Say you won’t go in. What fare are you getting that’s worth all the trouble?”

Mahoney squeezed his eyes shut. “Nothing you’d understand. I just…I have to. It has to be me, and it has to be there.”

Dooley growled through his nose, stamping the life out of his latest cigarette. “All right, Mahoney. All right.”

 

Like all good supervillain lairs, the Oculus Institute sat atop a seaside cliff. Mahoney, his hair slicked to the side with borrowed pomade and wearing a suit he’d only worn once before, to a funeral, drove a dummy car up the front drive. There was no gate, an oddity in such a place. Mahoney tried to contain his sense of foreboding as he drove past thick cypress hedges and up to the front of the white stone building.

A female attendant was waiting for him. The uniform for the place was the same green as the pamphlet. The girl’s set came with a headdress that brought to mind Red Cross nurses from the war. Her eyes were at half-mast, her unsmiling face held no makeup.

“Mr. French?” Her voice was flat.

Mahoney tried to smile like someone else and ended up thrusting his chin out awkwardly. “That’s me, Harold French. Friends call me Harry.”

The girl said nothing. Mahoney realized she was waiting for him to get out of the car, so he scrambled.

“You are here of your own free will, yes?” Her diction was stilted, as if English wasn’t her first language and she had memorized her script by rote.

“Committing myself? Boy howdy. The office tells me—”

“You will be apprised of our going rates,” the girl continued smoothly as they crossed the threshold and into a very spartan hallway. It was as if someone had put a hotel front on a prison. The hall was unglamorous and identical to any number of buildings in the city, save for a series of canvases that hung the length of the hall. Mahoney tried to contain a rapidly blooming sense of unease as he walked past them. Even before he saw the cursive dash of “R.Rousseau” in the corner, he knew they were the late artist’s product by the sheer anarchy of the brushwork. These were cruder, possibly done early in his manic period. One canvas depicted an empty sidewalk that looked very much like the front of the Jackson Memorial hall. Another showed a bungalow crouched among weeds and creepers like a fleeing crab. Another showed a lonely house on a hill, Miss Bianchi’s mansion. Mahoney realized with a jolt that they were all places he had visited. He swung around to look at the others, got a glimpse of a lonely alley populated by an overturned trash can and an empty refrigerator turned on its side and used as a makeshift house, before the buzzer for the interior door sounded. The girl was through and gone before  Mahoney realized he’d lagged, and skipped to catch up.

The girl strode down the hallway as if she ran on a greased track, smoothly and efficiently so her green smock didn’t so much as crease. There was art on the hallway walls in here, too, every three doors or so. All the same portrait. Unlike the front hall, this painting was done by an artist who seemed afraid of its subject, and not without reason. The subject of the painting, a man with thick-rim glasses and a glowing bald pate, seemed to stare through the canvas. His face was empty of human emotion in a way that made the air around the painting seem a few degrees colder. It was the kind of face that could watch an opera or an execution and be equally unmoved. A brass plate below the frame read: “our founder.”

“The pamphlet listed our facilities,” the girl spoke monotonously, indicating the doors that lined the hallway with a hand. None of them were marked. “We have much more than what is available at the surface level, of course. All will be revealed in time. But not before your test.”

Mahoney spoke up. “Ah yes, I brought the results of my last physical, three months ago. No need.”

The girl looked at him, and the look knew things. Mahoney slowed his pace. A sudden bolt back down the hallway was only stymied by the automatic door, which had closed on his heels.

“You will be tested,” she said flatly.

Mahoney hunkered down and tried to breathe calmly. When the hall t-boned, the girl went left. Mahoney ran right.

Of course, escape was all but impossible. The windows he had seen from the outside didn’t seem capable of opening, and he doubted the place had a laundry chute handy for sliding down. He jogged around another right turn and met with an identical stretch of hallway. Thurgood Orroft glared down at him. Maybe this was why the grounds were unfenced, the place was practically a fortress. Each patient suite a cloistered cell accessible only from the outside, soundproofed, with a drain in the floor for easy cleaning. He rounded another right turn at a slightly quicker pace. If he could only get his hands on something sharp, maybe he could take a prisoner and negotiate his way out.

Mahoney slowed, stopping in the middle of the immaculate hallway.

He had turned right three times. Jogged about the same distance the every time. By all rights, he should be back where he started.

Mahoney started to perspire.

Easing into a light jog, he vowed to turn left at the next junction. That never came. Instead, he was stuck jogging down a series of identical right turns. When he finally ran back into the girl, flanked by burly young men in green scrubs, it was almost a relief.

Mahoney crouched and put his hands on his knees, winded. “Mulligan?”

The girl blinked. The men surged from around her like a green river and converged on Mahoney. He was seized in several places and carted bodily off down the hall.

“Your test lies this way, Mr. Mahoney,” the girl said flatly, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

Mahoney tried not to show shock. “Why are you calling me that?”

“We were told to expect you.” The girl stopped at a door identical to the ones around it and took out a large ring of keys. “Your vision test will be in this room.”

What lay behind the door was not a sterile white examination room as he’d expected, but a cold bare-stone interior about as homey as the face of the moon. Something he couldn’t call anything besides an altar sat in the middle of the room. A lens of thick, mottled green glass sat in a fork of carved soapstone, a strange sort of cradle just in front of it. Mahoney was given one blissful second of ignorance at its function before he was thrown, bodily, over it.

The girl watched with hooded eyes as they shackled his limbs beneath the cradle, leaving him lying prone on his stomach with his chin in a leather sling. The lens gleamed just before his face. The girl gave the glass a slight tilt, making all the shadows on the other side of it reverse. And suddenly he knew. He knew.

Mahoney fought. One of the wrist restraints pulled out of the stone after a few wrenches. This earned him a haymaker to the shoulder and a dizzying moment of pain. An orderly sat on his arm.

“We usually save the seeing glass for brothers of the leaves,” the girl continued, “they must graduate through several levels of mindfulness and discussion. Their minds widened before the glass helps them to truly see. You are the exception.”

Mahoney clenched his eyes shut and turned his head. A thick, muscular hand forced him to face forward. Two sets of fingers pried his eyelids open.

Above him, emotionless, pitiless, the girl stared down. Mahoney realized he hadn’t seen her blink the whole time he’d been here. His own eyes burned.

“Look into the glass Mahoney. It’s what you’re here for.”

Mahoney looked.

Mahoney screamed.

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The Day It Rained Rats

Joseph lived on a farm. His eyes were the same faded denim blue as the sky, his skin was the white of the weathered silo wood, and his hair was the dark gold of wheat stubble left in a field. He had lived on the farm all thirteen years of his life and knew all the moods of it. Often, he could tell by the color of the sky at dawn how the day was going to go; If it would rain, if something had got into the chicken coop, how many visitors they would have. It seemed no significant trick to him, so he never devised a language with which to discuss it. He felt this deficit sorely the day he woke up and the sky was crystal.

What did that mean? Even in his own head, he struggled to define it. The sky had a peculiar crackling quality to it almost like a lightning storm, but not quite. The air tasted like a tornado, yet none of the animals in their pens had the telltale restlessness that preceded such storms. The sky simply wasn’t right, and he couldn’t explain how or why.

So he didn’t.

The day was unremarkable from sunup to about two-thirty. Ma and Pa and baby Sadie went to town to see about some business. Uncles Carl and Curt, identical save for Curt’s bristled-straw mustache, were left on hand to mind everything. Joseph did what he normally did: weave in and out of chores to grab the odd lonely moment where he could be by himself. Instead of whittling or playing marbles, he put his ear to the sky. The atmosphere had turned an innocuous blue, but the air still tasted wrong. Earthy. Like the ground after a lightning snap.

Uncle Curt was on the roof chasing one of the chickens back to ground-level. Carl had availed himself to replace the rope-winch to the well and had Joseph on standby to hand him tools. It was all so shockingly normal so when the change came it was as sudden and terrible as a thunderclap.

Carl tied a quick blood knot as a stay and grunted as he got up from a sitting position.

“Awl’s in the house,” he said, ambling across the yard, “lent it to your daddy for his leather.”

Joseph followed not out of duty, but simple inertia. He floated like a fishing bob behind his uncle as they met Curt, walking perpendicular with a chicken under one arm.

“‘Bout to get the mallet,” Curt said. Carl grunted.

The brothers parted, Carl to the house, Curt to the coop.

“S’funny,” Carl began, “I ever tell you—”

Whatever anecdote he began was lost, never to be found again. A meaty thud of impact reverberated across the farm yard. As one, uncle and nephew turned.

Curt stood angled oddly, as if frozen in the middle of a dance. He held his arm in one hand, face ashen grey.

“Okay,” he said, spitting. “Oookay.”

His right shoulder was oddly lumpy and grey. No. As it began to move, Joseph realized the impact had been the sound of a rat hitting his shoulder. The rodent lay draped over the dislocated joint, no bigger than a loaf of banana bread. Whatever height it had fallen from had stunned it momentarily. The moment was over almost as quickly as it began, when the rat righted itself and screeched. Joseph got a flashbulb impression of mad black eyes and yellow teeth before it buried itself in Curt’s shoulder, screaming.

Carl unfroze. He drove the boy before him with a firm hand, saying, “go on, get,” as he shoved Joseph towards the house. They reached the safety of the porch as another rat screeched from the sky to wind up denting the hood of the old Ford truck. They gaped as the rodent shook off the fall and scampered away.

From the safety of the front steps they watched Curt make it halfway across the yard until another rat beaned him on the head. He’d been tearing at the rat who’d been tearing at his shoulder, now his hands fell away and he dropped to one knee. The rat that bounced off his head scampered to his ankle, followed by three new arrivals.

Curt looked up just once, making eye contact with Carl. Carl nodded grimly and shoved Joseph inside the house.

Curt only screamed towards the end. Carl wouldn’t let him look outside, but Joseph still heard the battered sound of Curt’s throat trying to make words, along with the desperate slaps as he tried to beat them away.

Carl was breathing heavy. Perspiration formed a mustache on his clean-shaven face.

“They just bounced,” he said, not to Joseph or anyone alive. “They fell outta the damn sky and ain’t even dead!”

The tin roof of the farmhouse became a deafening drum, continuous gong sounds echoing through the house as rats hit the metal. Carl went to great aunt Sadie’s sewing desk and got some cotton wool for their ears and then put Joseph to work barricading doors. The icebox went in front of the back door. The china cabinet before the front. One window was broken by a sideways-sleeting rat that Carl threw out by the tail, he nailed the tea-tray over the hole.

Joseph stood at the second-story window in his parent’s room. The rain had been going on for an hour, now the fall of bodies was cushioned by the other bodies. A fat carpet of rats swarmed the chicken coop. He could hear the cows in the pasture, bellowing as they swatted fruitlessly with their tails. The barn cat was nowhere in sight, but more than likely a loss.

Carl came into the room panting and perspiring. “Damn fine thing it isn’t raining cats and dogs right now,” he joked thinly. He noticed Joseph and waved. “Come away from the winder. Nothing worth seeing out there, anyway.”

The daylight turned black as the inside of a cow’s stomach. Storm clouds deposited rat after rat on the dusty ruin of the farm. The air smelled thick and sharp, the earthiness turned to the smell of a rat’s den. Joseph imagined the clouds roiling with all the debris that comes with rodents; perhaps a musky rain of rat’s piss would fall on them next.

Carl deposited Joseph on the settee and looked at him hard. “I don’t like your eyes, boy.”

Joseph turned robotically to look at him. “Ma and pa. Baby Sadie.”

Carl failed to hide his dismay quickly enough. “I’m sure they’re fine. Lots of buildings downtown, good hard brick.”

They both knew it was a lie.

The rats knocked out the single line that ran to the farmhouse, so they had supper by candlelight. Leftover beef, new potatoes that grit in their teeth, and stale biscuits. Joseph saw an upside-down cake his mother left in the icebox and said nothing. Carl kept up a regimen of bright, brittle conversation that did not succeed in drowning out the screech of rats.

“I’ve heard of fish rain afore,” he said, cotton wool all but muffling his voice, “frogs one time, too. Up in Heckville. That was in your great-grandad’s time.” His hands shook as he sawed the meat. He cut the webbing between his thumb and forefinger and swore through a gritted smile.

“You’ll see, Joseph,” he said as he swaddled the cut with a cloth napkin. “A little rain like this is nothin’. Not at all. Probably just some tornader pick them up from elsewhere. Nothin’ at all.”

Joseph sat and watched his uncle with dry eyes. Part of him had cracked and fallen away when the first rat fell. His uncle’s desperate babble washed over him like a weak tide. He smelled the crackling odor of the sky and heard the rats and felt nothing.

Joseph would have liked to sleep in his own bed, but Carl dragged him into the cellar. There amidst the damp and the jars of preserves, Carl spread a single quilt over the both of them.

“You’ll see, bluebird,” he kept repeating. Bluebird had been his nickname for Joseph a long time ago. “You’ll just see.” What Joseph would see and what it would do, Carl did not say. He only repeated the phrase over and over.

The cellar floor was hard under his spine and Carl had only thought to bring one pillow. Somehow sleep found Joseph. He cracked an eye open at dawn.

The air smelled…normal. He could smell the color of the sky as clearly as he could see from the kitchen window that it would be the same flat blue as any other day.

The farm was in tatters. The dirt of the coop was churned up, not even a feather left. The rats had gnawed a hole in the silo and gorged themselves. In the pasture, only the metal tags from the heifer’s ears remained. Of the rats there was no sign.

Carl woke with a start when Joseph touched his arm.

“It’s clear. We can go now,” Joseph said.

Carl dithered an hour before he could even bring himself to look out the window, but once he did he fell into a manic frenzy of packing supplies. Though he swore they would return, Joseph watched him pack the government bonds and great-grandma’s golden brooch, along with every stitch of cash they had in the house.

The yard was empty of birdsong. The click of the front door closing echoed against the outbuildings. Carl gripped Joseph’s arm tightly as if he were blind and the boy was guiding him and set off down the long dirt lane up to the county road, a sad concrete tongue more full of potholes than cement.

Long hours they walked in the blistering sun. They passed other farms, other empty houses. Carl jumped every time something shifted. Joseph’s eyes were dry as he tracked the sun. The sky was bruise-purple before they came upon another sign of life: an old Chevy sputtering down the track. Carl dropped their burden and waved, screaming and yelling. The car kept on coming right toward them. A sharp smell hit Joseph’s nose.

“Y’see bluebird? It all works out.” Carl was chanting. He waved.

The impact of a fallen object shattered the windshield, sending the car drifting into the wrong lane before it collided with a fence pole and stopped. Both uncle and nephew held their breaths. There was a long, still moment before they saw movement from the car’s cab; but it wasn’t the injured driver or even a sky-born rat. It was a thin tabby cat that extracted itself from the crater before neatly grooming its tail.

“Bluebird,” Carl said meaninglessly as impact thuds started up all around them. “Oh, bluebird.”

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The Dangerous Adventures of Mutt & Mike

I can paint you an exact picture of where I was when The Mutt & Mike Thanksgiving Special aired, even though it’s identical to countless other Saturdays from my childhood. I was sitting at the dining table at an angle so that I could still see our old two-dial Magnavox, shoveling sugary cereal into my mouth. My mother worked the night shift back then, so she was still snoring away on the pull-out couch. I could describe the rip in the wallpaper from when I tried to put up a tent in the living room. I could tell you how many pillows we had (five) and how the birdcage at the window held not a bird but a yellowed peperomia, that the front curtain was not a real curtain but an old sheet from my bed bearing characters from an old scifi show.

But of the cartoon I can tell you so little, so very little.

Mike was a pink blob, Mutt was yellow. The background was cyan, maybe. They lived in a house, or perhaps a formless void that was the home of so many other cheap cartoons. It’s a blur. The cartoon left a vaguely pleasant film on my mind, like the fuzz the cereal left on my teeth. I’m not sure what compelled me to get down from my chair, push in the tape that was mainly used for recording Night Court episodes, and hit the record button halfway through the special. The end result was that a whole 28 minutes and forty seconds of Mutt & Mike was preserved that day due to my childish interference.

And it should not exist.

The lost media wiki has no entries on it. I’ve dipped my toe in forums that call its existence a hoax, a delusion, an attempt to spread viral advertising for some upcoming movie. Promotional stills have been dissected by internet experts who call a matter of pixel blurring hard proof.

I’m not the only one who’s seen the show. Believe me, I would be only too happy to chalk it down to a misremembered event, if not for the others. A user calling himself xXterrytoonsXx claimed to have fifteen of the first season’s episodes and made plans to upload them to youtube. He ran into increasingly high hurdles as his video capture equipment broke down, as he accidentally damaged some tapes in the process. The vlogs he released in-between upload attempts showed his deteriorating state. He slurred words, mumbled, moved increasingly like a broken marionette as his coordination went. His last contact with the outside world was a badly-misspelled plea for a competent video editor and then…silence. Not one of the thousands of internet sherlocks were able to dig up a family or even an acquaintance. He had never even answered one of my messages begging him to respond.

I check my email first thing: 94 new messages since I checked before falling asleep four hours ago. Angry missives from trolls who want to see the tape. Skeptics quizzing me on exact details. People who claim to have seen Mutt & Mike too and want to reach out to me. Those are the hardest to deal with. I want to share this with someone else, I want to commiserate with other people, but I’ve been through it all before. These people are the wooden horse left by a retreating army. Once they’ve breached my defense they’ll start asking if I remember this or that, and can I describe this scene exactly, trying to loot the cursed treasure of my memory.The concept of people who want to contract a virus on purpose is entirely new to me. I say this because Mutt & Mike is exactly that, a virus.

My mother gave me the tapes when she moved down to Florida with her husband. Most of our TV things had been damaged in a flood, only this little box had remained snugly upstairs because it held the auxiliary remotes. I received a whole lot of tapes with nothing but Night Court, Murphy Brown, and THE tape bearing my childish scribble. I couldn’t make out the words I had written down so long ago, deciding to plop it in my VCR/DVD combo. Maybe if I hadn’t been so eager to hold on to the past, none of this would be this way. I could have gotten the solo DVD player, or just dumped the tapes on a thrift store. I popped the black plastic lozenge into the mouth of my VCR instead. Halfway through Harry Stone’s legal antics, the picture changed. Familiar and garish colors filled my screen and I was transported back to our old apartment for a brief moment.

I woke up four hours later to a blue screen and a screaming headache. I had urinated on myself.

Before he fired me for failure to show, my boss had often told me I always seemed like I was searching for something. When I was on the phone to clients, my eyes didn’t go off into the middle distance but glanced around me seeking something or someone. I didn’t seem like I’d be happy, he said, until I found the thing I was looking for.

Was Mutt & Mike that? God, I hope not.

Why don’t I dispose of the tape, you might ask? I’ve thought hard about it, believe me. VHS tapes are practically engineered for self-destruction anyway, wearing out with each successive viewing. I’ve thought about eviscerating the tape’s guts and pouring acetone over them. I’ve considered fire, hammers, even the garbage disposal. But…

And this is where I get stuck. I don’t know why I stop there every time, but I do. I look at this plastic rectangle and realize I am the only person in the world who has this. My hands stop and my body fails and my mind goes blank. It would be very easy to attribute this all to the tape but it’s me. I know it’s me. I want to look away. I can’t.

I haven’t gone outside in a while. I get my groceries online, have them delivered. I have triple locks on my door and a doorbell camera. Multiple threats on my life, you see. Some people are so eager to see the abominable they feel entitled to it. As if I’ve stolen something of theirs. I didn’t even know. I stumbled into a TV forum, innocently asking if anyone had heard of this cartoon. My head was still buzzing (perhaps I had hit it in the seizure) and all I wanted was to make sense of my situation. I didn’t know. I’d take it back if I could.

One of the more threatening emails I’ve gotten pledges “you can’t keep this secret forever.” And they’re right of course. I know I am not enough to hold it back. I am Pandora, and each night as I lay in bed I feel my fingertips burning with curiosity. Perhaps, the worm whispers, perhaps it’s not as bad as all that. What if I’m wrong, just this time? What if this has all been a dream and I’m simply choosing to stay here?

Back then, on that Saturday, I had no notion that things would ever be anything but the way they were. That we would lose the apartment and that television. That I would wind up sleeping on that pull-out couch with two step brothers that came too quickly and too close together. That my mother would lose job after job, that I would relinquish the last of my childhood in a misguided effort to ease her suffering. Perhaps the cartoon knew all this, knew I would push myself to revisit that time, knew I had never abandoned that moment despite the years.

Perhaps I really am insane.

The tape sits on the last table left in my apartment. As my savings go, I must sell off the other furniture, but the table must remain. And the television. And the VCR. And the electricity to run them both. And who knows, some day when everything has been sold that can be sold, when I can no longer keep the bills at bay, I will take that black rectangle and put it into its slot and hit play. I will watch the bright shapes bounce across the screen, I will hit all the same beats one last time and just…let it be the end.

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Ascension

“Daddy, is grandma in heaven?”

Megan had the window seat. The blue glow of the sky outside the plane sucked the warmth from her skin. Her eyes looked too big in her face.

“Of course.” Just one of many uncomfortable exchanges Dwight had fielded during their journey. He had expected and prepared for it.

“Because mommy said she’s down below.”

In the ground or in hell? Dwight stopped his tongue short from asking that. He’d have words with Susan when they got back. “Grandma’s in heaven, right next to grandpa. We’re just going to see them put her earthly body in the ground.”

“Oh. But then her ghost flew up?” Megan explored her nose with an index finger.

Dwight captured it and pulled it away. “Her spirit. Honey, did mommy say anything scary to you?”

The girl’s eyes strayed to the window outside. “No.”

“Because sometimes mommy says things without thinking, and I want you to tell me when that happens.”

Megan continued looking out the window. Petulance or fear of her father, he couldn’t fathom which.

“Do you remember your cousins,” he said, hoping the change of subjects would distract her. “Clyde and Emmy and Robert?”

The girl was looking deep into the clouds. “When people die in plane crashes, what do their ghosts do?”

Dwight bit his lip thoughtfully. “Did mommy say we were going to crash? Did she talk about plane crashes with you?”

“No. Just wondering.”

Dwight sighed. She’d never implicate her mother, not ever. “Well, sweetie, planes hardly ever crash. Do you know we’re safer up here than we would be in a car down there? Cars crash all the time.”

“Yeah, but you can live through a car crash.” Megan hadn’t moved her eyes. “Anyway, you didn’t answer me. Where does your ghost go when you die on a plane?”

Christ, how morbid. But she wasn’t wrong. For a moment Dwight couldn’t stop his brain from exploring that scenario, what the black box would say when it was found. If it was found. He forced himself back to the moment.

Spirit, Megan, ghosts aren’t real. Your spirit goes to heaven just the same as if you…on the ground.”

“I don’t think so.”

Dwight growled, then caught himself. “Mommy is very mean, sometimes, Megan, and she’s very sneaky about it. If she talks about sad things while you’re in the room—”

“Mommy doesn’t talk about spirits. I’m talking about it.” Megan seemed more estranged to him the longer she gazed out the window and the blue sky gazed back at her, the light and unnatural  stillness making her look like the pupa of something alien to him.

“So all spirits go right up to heaven?”

“Abso-tutely.”

“Are we in heaven?”

Dwight jumped slightly. “No, baby, why do you say that?”

“‘Cause there’s a spirit out there.”

Megan’s blunt little finger pointed out the plexiglass window to the clouds that surrounded the plane. The sun was beginning to descend; by the time they reached the airport it would be night. Right now the sky was a play of light and shadow, and Dwight almost said to his daughter that she had seen a cloud shaped like something and spun that off into an anecdote about finding shapes in clouds to coax her away from her morbid turn of mind when a small swirl of activity caught his eye.

For a moment something had curled, ribbonlike, in the corner of his vision. For a moment something had moved not like a bird or a cloud or another plane but something that hunted underwater, something fast and fluid.

Dwight craned his head at the window, over Megan’s protests that he was squishing her, and panned the limited view the porthole afforded.

Nothing. Nothing and nothing and nothing.

Dwight shifted back into his seat. “Baby, that’s not funny.”

“It wasn’t a joke. I saw a spirit.” Megan was puzzled. “Why aren’t they shaped like people?”

“How was it shaped?”

She drew a descending curlique with her finger. Dwight gulped.

“The gulf stream—sometimes clouds—” he looked out the window again. “Almost nothing flies at this height, honey.”

“I know. Just spirits.” Megan turned to the window again. She scrunched her face up. “I wonder if it’s angry. It was moving fast.”

Dwight realized his finger was hovering over the call button and pulled back. “Honey, your imagination—”

“There’s another one!” The girl jumped up in her seat, excited. A passing attendant gave them a benign smile. Dwight returned it, sliding down slightly in his seat.

“Megan, honey, lower your voice.”

Megan’s face pressed hard on the window. “Two. Three! Dad, there’s a bunch.”

Other people were looking over at them, a mix of irritation and exhaustion. Dwight turned to yank the window shade down and caught movement. Something cloud colored and textured but moving like a leech swimming through a muddy stream. Dwight pressed his face so hard against the window he cracked his forehead.

“Daddy!” Megan shifted against the pressure from his shoulder. Dwight was aware she was talking, aware of her discomfort, but could not spare space in his head at the moment.

The clouds boiled and burst in small increments as a smokelike wraiths seesawed through their particulate mass. They were too quick to take in details: no faces, no limbs, just white blurs.

They were no longer the sole witnesses to this miracle. A woman 12 seats up the aisle burst into a scream. A man behind them pounded on the glass as his wife snored on his shoulder. Through the eddys of panic, the attendant waded, making motions of appeasement with her hands.

The plane began to rock. The ‘fasten seatbelts’ sign lit up.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is your pilot,” the intercom burbled. Dwight’s hands were shaking as he tried and failed to fasten his daughter’s buckle. “We seem to have hit a minor patch of turbulence, nothing to worry about, but you will need to buckle up.

At the head of the aisle, an attendant demonstrated proper fastening etiquette. It was ignored in the anarchy. People were screaming, vomiting, seething with all the angst of a mob that had nowhere to go. Dwight found it harder and harder to breathe with every successive lurch. He chanced a look out the window and then fumbled for his airsickness bag. The plane’s wing was circled with serpentine bands the same color as the clouds. Most of the passengers stopped screaming as the plane’s flight evened out, some gasping thanks to various gods. Dwight felt no relief. He watched the clouds sink beneath them further without fully comprehending what was happening. They had stopped shaking, didn’t that mean the pilot had regained control? Senselessly, he put his hand to the glass and tried to wipe the tendrils from the plane wing.

“—can’t, I mean, we won’t stop climbing.” the intercom screeched to life, probably from the pilot having bumped up against it. “Don’t touch the comms until we can figure out what’s wrong.

Some people mumbled prayer. Some screamed theirs out loud. Dwight looked over them, deaf and blind from panic.

“What’s going on?” he asked no one in particular. “Where are they taking us?”

“That’s easy.” Megan sat stoic, blue light deepening on her face and making her eyes look black. “Heaven.” In the window beyond her face, stars began winking into view.

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The Little Stranger

With the way things ended up, you might have expected Lucy Sullivan to kill her mother on the way out. They thought her a stillbirth initially, shocked by the sudden resurgence of heartbeat at 28 weeks. But no, Lucy was born at 6am on a Thursday, 8 pounds 5 ounces, to Dolores and Danny Sullivan. Ghost pale, even then, with hair that turned invisible in strong light. Dolores wanted to name her Angelica for obvious reasons, but Danny put his foot down for the first and last time in his marriage and the baby was named after his mother. After that there were no arguments, no disagreements. The house belonged to Lucy, and everything  and everyone in it. One look from her melted even the most contrary heart. The other girls in school would secretly snip locks from her blonde-white head to keep as lucky charms, snipping more and more as the hair from their own heads began thinning mysteriously. The Sullivans had no end of babysitters, which turned out lucky because they were prone to frequent bouts of colic that left them bedridden. With a townful of attention, their daughter thrived.

It was a mystery. On paper, Lucy was an unremarkable student. She never quite learned her times tables, grammar continually eluded her. Yet Lucy was provided enough to pass every exam by sympathetic hands, some belonging to the school staff. Lucy was not stupid, they could see it in the blinding brightness of her smile and the inquisitive tilt of her head. She simply needed more help, fragile creature that she was.

The Sullivans lasted until her sixth year, and then they died in a house fire. As the story went, Dolores had fallen prey to a wasting sickness and, in her weakness, had failed to right a fallen lantern. The townsfolk could see the sorrow behind Lucy’s smile, the cornflower blue of her eyes. Fostering was a fierce competition, it was only by pulling rank that the town pastor won. His own children had long since grown, he and his wife’s house sat empty and neat as a museum. Lucy made it live again, if not with the melodic sound of her laughter then her constant stream of visitors. Everyone in town found excuses to come visit the orphan in her new roost. The pastor’s only visitors were his children, who noted more and more grey in their father’s hair as months went by. Their concern went unvoiced. Who cared if the old man walked with a stoop now, or that his wife was too weak to manage anything but peas-and-barley porridge? They took care of Lucy with the fervor of a saint, and that was all that really mattered.

The pastor keeled over mid-sermon one Sunday. Visitors to his house found Lucy weeping at the foot of his wife’s bed, the hearth and the woman both stone cold. Edward Murray, the richest man in the county, swooped in. His only son needed a wife, and so he paid for Lucy’s boarding school. Four years tuition wasted on a girl who came out knowing no more than when she came in. That was enough for Murray. His son, John Davis Murray, was joined in holy matrimony to Lucy when he was twenty-seven and she the tender age of sixteen. The marriage lasted a year.

John Murray, on his deathbed, swore his wife the sole heritor of everything he owned in the world. His chest collapsed from coughing and his striking auburn hair went grey, but it only made stark contrast to the pale beauty of Lucy, sat at the foot of his bed, embroidering. Inherit she did, but only a token sum once Edward Murray’s lawyers got hold of his will. Edward became ill shortly after his only son’s passing, ranting about his son’s widow and turning himself into a pariah among the townsfolk. In the scourge and scandal, Lucy remained unblemished as a rose petal.

Care of the girl became a civic concern. Let it never be said that the townsfolk left such a tragic orphan to the poorhouse. Lucy moved from home to home, borne up by many hands. The town paid into a pension for her care as she turned nineteen, twenty, twenty-one years old. That year a blight struck the crops, a grey mold that shivered with the wind until the fields looked full of smoke. With the last of the town’s coffers they sent Lucy to the city, to a convent of some repute. She never reached it. A rich stranger’s eye caught on her white-gold hair and suddenly she was in society, where her lack of education mattered as little as dandelion fluff. She was engaged to a playboy who raced cars in his leisure time, widowed again when he fell asleep behind the wheel. She became a companion to a factory heiress, inheriting some of her nicer jewelry when a social disease the girl contracted turned septic. Lucy rose up the ranks buoyed by tragedy. There was always room in the heart for such a victim of circumstance, you see. Her smile was unweathered by despair, her eyes clear and blue and free from messy tears.

When something really, truly happened to Lucy, it came as quite the shock. She had spent years teetering on the edge of illness, but now she fell well and truly sick for the first time in her life. The prognosis was grim.

“You’re pregnant,” a doctor told her.

Lucy’s face was flat as a tombstone. “That can’t be.”

“I’m afraid so.” The man’s handsome face smiled at her, for her. “I’m sure you and the father must be delighted.”

“You don’t understand, this can’t happen. This mustn’t happen.” What color remained in Lucy’s face drained. “Not to me.”

The doctor held her as she fell into hysterics, called for laudanum to calm her when he couldn’t. Lucy spent the last months of her pregnancy in a hospital bed, alternating between fear and denial. Her white-blonde hair thinned and her veins showed dark under her skin. Nurses pulled double shifts at her bedside, fearing for their pretty young charge. Straps were installed after the poor girl clawed at her stomach in a bout of hysteria. Despite every reassurance that her child was healthy and in fact thriving in the womb, Lucy’s fear could not be assuaged.

On the day of the birth, Lucy made one last plea to the doctor before she was wheeled to the operating room.

“Please,” she said. Her gums had retreated from her teeth and her eyes threaded with veins, her white hair nearly gone from her head. “I’m not meant for this.”

The doctor, who had fallen deeply in love with her despite her fading appearance, clasped her hand tightly. “Don’t worry, I’ll do everything in my power to make sure the baby survives.”

Lucy died on the operating table. Cardiac arrest from the strain, they said. The babe was delivered; ten pounds, seven ounces. Hale and healthy. So healthy, in fact, that it was the sole survivor of the influenza outbreak that leveled the infant ward the next day. The baby was given the name Victor, and he cooed charmingly as he was introduced to his new adoptive family. His mother, a barren woman past her prime, openly wept at the story of his circumstance.

“I promise you a long and full life,” she told the little one.

Victor smiled.

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Night Light

It’s hard to sleep.

I have chronic migraines. The slightest hint of a glow sets off this piercing tone in my head, which makes my eyeballs throb in their sockets, which makes my jaw clench until it aches, which makes my scalp pucker and bristle, on and on in a domino effect. You can imagine the work I had to do to eliminate light from my room. No electronics. Blackout curtains. I even wear a sleep mask for good measure. It worked.

Until the street light.

I rolled over one night and found a new needle of agony driven into me. Bright, halogen-white light leaking through my blackout curtains no matter how I adjusted them. Even turned to my other side with my sleep mask firmly tamped down, I could still see it or imagined I could. The glow shuttered shortly after sunrise, and I managed to catch a few winks out of sheer desperation.

After too much morning coffee, I walked up and down my street, trying to determine the position of the usurper. If I could find the culprit, I could call the city service number on its base. Hours later, I despaired of any solution. None of the street lamps were positioned closely to my house (and this had been a selling point for me) or at such an angle that I could easily see it from my window. It looked like another night of agony for me, and it was.

I didn’t even try to sleep, but it didn’t lessen the pain. I tried pushing the curtain aside, but the deluge of light shot through me like a bullet and I had to fall back. I had seen flood lights with less wattage. What possible bulb could the city be using in the lamp?

I admit, I must have sounded like a raving madman on that service line. I was out days of sleep, and my already fragile nerves were shot. I think I begged them to come and take the bulb out because the light was too sharp. I sat on the porch sipping endless rounds of coffee until the city worker came out. He looked sideways at my disheveled appearance, but walked me through the plan nonetheless.

There were six lamps in my neighborhood block, he said, three on my street, three on the street behind my house. He brought out the block blueprint and talked about light pollution, power saving, and many other topics I was too exhausted to untangle. It was nearing sundown and he held up a hand.

“Now watch,” he said, “and see if you can tell me which one shines in your window.”

One by one, the bulbs flickered on. Orange. The same dull sodium orange that shone from every other lamp in the city.

I thanked the worker for his time and walked home. The second I closed my bedroom door behind me, the light returned. Of course.

Even with my prescription sunglasses, I could not determine the source. It was as if the light was a solid block against my window. What’s more, I found something else as I pushed the curtains aside. Despite the harsh power of the rays, I noticed the vase on my desk did not cast even a thin shadow. Nothing did.

So now I sit here, sleepless. In the diffusion around my blackout curtains, I can see the light staring into me relentless as an x-ray. The source, purpose, and means of it are all mysteries I have given up on. I no longer fear that it will keep me from sleep.

I fear the day I will be able to sleep, and what will happen then.

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